The USDA's latest chicken ruling is turning heads. Here's why

It is now more likely that the chicken on your dinner plate had a contagious form of cancer. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has decided that poultry processors can stop throwing away chickens found with avian leukosis, a disease caused by a virus that spreads easily among chickens on poultry farms (via Bloomberg). Although processors will still be required to cut out any tumors they find, they might not even see those tumors to begin with. The USDA's ruling also eliminates a requirement to check the first 300 birds in every flock for signs of avian leukosis. 

In a separate decision, the USDA now allows faster line speeds at poultry processors. They can slaughter 175 chickens a minute (that's almost three per second), up from the old speed limit of 140 (via The Counter). As The Counter points out in a separate article, the faster processing speeds can make it harder to spot any tumors that would need to be trimmed out of a carcass.

The National Chicken Council, which advocates for the poultry industry, asked for the avian leukosis rule change back in March 2019, but the USDA's decision came just last month. It was one of many rules that have been relaxed in recent months, in order to avoid meat shortages during the disruptions brought on by COVID-19. President Trump even ordered that meat plants remain open despite large outbreaks of COVID-19 among workers.

Food-safety advocates worry the rule change could start a new pandemic

Food-safety advocates worry that avian leukosis could pose a health risk to humans. Bloomberg reported that a study in the UK found that poultry workers had antibodies to the retrovirus that causes avian leukosis, which indicates that it can be transmitted to humans. Parthapratim Basu, who served as the Chief Public Health Veterinarian for the FSIS from 2016 to 2018, said the virus will eventually mutate, and we could have another pandemic on our hands. "We are dealing right now with a pandemic that transferred into humans from an animal source," the vet told Bloomberg. "A poorly regulated meat industry could very well become the source of a new epidemic."

The National Chicken Council argued in its petition to the USDA that the latest science shows no risk to human health from avian leukosis. The petition also said that modern farm practices have virtually wiped out the disease. Incidence of avian leukosis is less than 0.001 percent today, the council's petition said. But the council didn't just appeal to science. It also reminded the USDA of a current political reality: for every new rule that might be added to an industry, Trump wants two regulations taken away. The USDA apparently agreed that the avian leukosis rule was a good one to get rid of. We'll see if America's chicken-loving public can stomach the change.