When I was a kid, Julia Child gave me great comfort because she would go on television to handle big chickens under the kitchen faucet to show how to wash away the germs that come with poultry, and she did it just like my mother and aunts did. Indeed, my earliest lessons in food safety were about how those chickens and turkeys had to be washed because they contained germs. So it was a little discomforting to hear from a well-spoken nutrition scientist at Drexel University all these years later that raw poultry is now so contaminated that, if you wash it as Julia Child taught us back in the day, you are going to just spread Campylobacter and Salmonella in little microscopic droplets all over your kitchen. Drexel’s Dr. Jennifer Quinian says don’t risk that cross-contamination, just get the bird in the oven and cook it to temperature. Julia Child being wrong after all these years was one of those cute little NPR stories, and it came complete with “Germ-Vision” animation, which was pretty neat. But, the more I thought about it, the more helpless I felt about this whole issue of pathogens being rampant in our chicken. It’s like we are supposed to just accept the fact, according to independent researchers, that about two of three raw chickens we purchase at the local supermarket are contaminated with Campylobacter or Salmonella or both. Most of it is Campylobacter, but the Salmonella strains showing up are increasingly of the antibiotic-resistant variety. Consider this little factoid. New pathogens are emerging faster than we can even reform our poultry inspection system to more fully address the existing Campylobacter and Salmonella contamination. I suppose that germ evolution moving faster than the speed of government should come as no surprise. But it’s sad, really, that politics has been allowed to trumpet pathogens in poultry inspection for most of the past 15 years or so. The way we inspect chickens in the United States has hardly changed in 56 years. Oh, we’ve added Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) planning and held out some standards for the poultry industry to achieve. But the shift to pathogen reduction forced on the rest of the meat industry with some great success has largely skipped over poultry. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) knows it needs to change the system. The HACCP-based Inspection Model Project, or HIMP for short, is supposed to be the change agent for the U.S poultry system, but it has not yet happened. HIMP was attacked from the get-go by the meat inspectors union, which took it to court under the Poultry Products Inspection Act of 1957. It’s gone on and on ever since. Judges ordered studies and data, USDA brought in third-party experts, and the latest was the Government Accounting Office nitpicking about the math. The union, with its enlisted (and probably paid) partisans, keeps a well-oiled machine going in order to scare the Obama administration away from moving to a new HIMP-based inspection system. Prior to 1957, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was responsible for U.S. poultry inspection, and a big scandal erupted because FDA was rarely doing any actual inspection at all. After 50 years of USDA-inspected beef and pork, “Ike” decided to calm the nation about chickens and give poultry the same treatment. Chickens and turkeys were moved to USDA, and eyes-on inspection of every slaughtered bird got under way. At that time, nobody was thinking about pathogens. Back then, chickens going to slaughter were not as healthy as they are now, nor were they as uniform in age and weight. Inspectors were on the lookout for tumors, abscesses and signs of sepsis. Today’s poultry inspectors standing on platforms watching chickens go by strikes me as both incredibly boring and a complete waste of precious time. I can guarantee that not a single inspector will see a pathogen on a chicken, even if the line speed is really slowed down or the line is run in reverse. Somebody apparently has to do it because the 1957 law mandates it, but poultry inspectors watching birds whiz by is the poultry-inspection equivalent of the old “poke and sniff” system used on beef. USDA’s proposed new inspection system, drawn on the HIMP experience, seems to me to empower the inspectors to get into plant records, enforce the HACCP plan, test for pathogens and focus on sanitation. Why the union does not want its members to have opportunities for more money and more responsibility by actually doing something is a bit puzzling to me. The bottom line here is pretty simple. When two-thirds of the birds going out the door with “USDA inspected” marks are contaminated with pathogens that make folks sick, the 1957 system is clearly not working. It is not only a failure. It is a dismal failure that food-safety leaders such as Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, USDA’s Under Secretary for Food Safety, and Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Administrator Al Almanza fully recognize and are courageously proposing to change. What’s been missing from this equation is the union accepting that its members, who are our poultry inspectors, are failing. Instead, they are in denial and have made this about who has political power, not about food safety or who is right. The only thing we should be talking about is that too many raw chickens and turkeys sold at meat counters all over America with their “USDA inspected” marks are contaminated with one or more pathogens – and what we are going to do about it. The same problem with poultry contamination exists in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. The United Kingdom decided last week to do whatever it takes to bring about some reductions in pathogen levels, no matter whose feathers are ruffled. Dr. Hagen and Al Almanza are ready to implement a new poultry-inspection system. We trust that Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and whomever he has to report to at the White House won’t chicken out.