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Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013 07:35 am

Crying fowl

Yucky chicken prompts lawsuit


Forget wings, thighs or breasts, mechanically separated chicken comes in the form of a batter or paste.

No one would argue that mechanically separated chicken qualifies as haute cuisine. Consider the official definition from the United States Department of Agriculture:

“Mechanically separated poultry is a paste-like and batter-like poultry product produced by forcing bones, with attached edible tissue, through a sieve or similar device under high pressure to separate bone from the edible tissue,” the agency says in a fact sheet.

Puree of poultry, as it were, is not particularly popular among denizens of the Rushville Treatment and Detention Center, which nonetheless serves mechanically separated chicken to residents as many as six times a week. It is used as a substitute for ground beef in such dishes as spaghetti, chili and biscuits-and-gravy, which helps keep the cost of each meal south of $1.70, with an extra 40 cents allowable on holidays, as per the state’s contract with Aramark Correctional Services, the center’s food service provider.

Fed up with not being fed more appetizing food, Rushville residents, who are locked up pursuant to civil commitment orders from courts that have deemed them sexually dangerous, are suing Aramark and the state Department of Human Services, which runs the facility. Unlike chickens themselves, the lawsuit is flying in federal court, where pleas for dismissal by the defendants have been rejected by U.S. District Court Judge Sue Myerscough.

When residents sued in 2010, the chicken being served them came in boxes marked “For Further Processing Only.” Under USDA regulations, which restrict the use of mechanically separated chicken with bone particles and calcium levels above certain thresholds, such chicken can only be used to make broths and stocks and other “poultry extractives.” Residents are now being served a higher grade of mechanically separated chicken, but the plaintiffs argue that it should be used as filler, not as a fill-in for hamburger.

“My reading of the (USDA) regulation is, you can’t do that,” said Mark Brittingham, a Southern Illinois University law professor who is representing the plaintiffs. “The contract (between Aramark and the state) says this has to be Grade A poultry. This is not Grade A poultry.”

The top grade of mechanically separated chicken is safe, the USDA says, and can be used without restriction so long as it is accurately labeled as mechanically separated chicken. It is commonly found in cheap bologna or the type of hot dogs that often cost less than the buns.

However, Rushville residents say the stuff makes them sick, and Myerscough has ruled that mechanically separated chicken isn’t necessarily OK even if the feds say it isn’t a health hazard.

“(A) disputed material fact exists regarding whether the mechanically separated chicken is adequate food, at least as prepared in the manner and frequency by Aramark, regardless of federal regulations,” Myerscough wrote in a May opinion rejecting the defendants’ pleas to dismiss the case. “Food that is so unpalatable as to be inedible, or food that repeatedly causes diarrhea or nausea, presents a substantial risk to a resident’s present and future health and well being. If the meal cannot be eaten as a practical matter, then the meal cannot as a practical matter provide adequate nutrition.”

Attorneys for Aramark say it boils down to a question of food quality as opposed to safety, and they say in court filings that the food at Rushville doesn’t violate anyone’s constitutional rights. But Jeremy Schloss, a plaintiff who was sent to Rushville from state prison after serving time for aggravated sexual abuse, says in a deposition that the food is so bad that he lost 30 pounds and, at six feet tall, weighed a mere 186 pounds when he was questioned by attorneys last December.

Chicken, Schloss testified, isn’t the only bad thing served at Rushville. Pancakes, he declared, are “horrible.”

“They fall apart,” Schloss testified. “They don’t even taste like pancakes. I mean, it’s not like when you go to Denny’s and you get that good pancake. ... I don’t need a giant plate of pancakes but just give me a couple of pancakes that taste good.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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