Poultry processing workers and food safety inspectors are being doused with chemicals in the name of food safety. A slew of antimicrobial agents are approved by the USDA to be used on meat and poultry. The chemicals are considered edible for consumers, but no assessments are made by USDA (or other agencies) on the health risks to workers.
The problem now has the attention of some Members of Congress. Representatives Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Louise Slaughter (D-NY) and others sent a letter last week to USDA Secretary Vilsack, HHS Secretary Burwell, and Labor Secretary Perez. They expressed “deep concerns” about the chemicals’ effects to poultry and meat workers:
“PAA is widely used…as part of an antimicrobial intervention system yet the chemical has been shown to cause severe adverse reactions to plant workers including: rashes, burns, destruction of the eye tissue, difficulty breathing, and inflammation of the respiratory system.”
The lawmakers note the connection between USDA’s conversion to its “modernized poultry inspection system” to an increase use in these chemicals.
“The industry is not only introducing new antimicrobial chemicals, but is also changing the volume, process and number of times by which chemicals are applied to food products. Chemicals that were previously only used in dip tanks on the slaughtering slide where few workers were present are now being used in multiple open dip tanks throughout the processing side of poultry plants. Furthermore, PAA is now being continuously sprayed on our food as it moves through conveyors in meat and poultry plants.”
The “modernized poultry slaughter inspection system” is one of the top five accomplishments touted by USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. (He served for the entirety of Obama’s term.) Vilsack doesn’t mention that the new process relies heavily on chemical disinfection of poultry meat. Vilsack skims away those details by only saying:
“requires all poultry facilities [to] create a plan to prevent contamination with Salmonella and Campylobacter, rather than addressing contamination after it occurs.”
When the USDA proposed in 2012 its regulation to “modernize the poultry inspection system,” consumer groups and food safety organizations warned that the industry would rely more and more on chemical sanitizers. Amanda Hitt, director of the Food Integrity Campaign with the Government Accountability Project, told Washington Post reporter Kimberly Kindy that inspectors were already reporting illnesses from chemicals used in the plants.
“They are mixing chemicals together in these plants, and it’s making people sick. Does it work better at killing off pathogens? Yes, but it also can send someone into respiratory arrest.”
One of the most dramatic and sad examples is the death of USDA poultry inspector Jose Navarro, 37. He died in 2011 from lung damage related to PAA. An OSHA inspection following Navarro’s death resulted in citations against the poultry plant in which Navarro worked. The violations against Murray Chicken included failing to protect workers from exposure to bleach and a mixture of peracetic acid, hydrogen peroxide and acetic acid. And the hazards to which inspectors are exposed are the same or worse for the hundreds of poultry-processing workers in the plants.
Former USDA poultry inspector Phyllis McKelvey told Kindy:
“They don’t talk about it publicly, but the line speeds are so fast, they are not spotting contamination, like fecal matter, as the birds pass by. Their attitude is, let the chemicals do the work.”
The December 7 letter from Rep. DeLauro and her colleagues ask the three Department heads questions such as, how does worker safety factor into the process for approving chemicals to be used as disinfectants on meat, poultry and eggs? The lawmakers also call on USDA to coordinate with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health when USDA is evaluating the efficacy of antimicrobial agents. These in-plant evaluations are one logical step to characterize worker exposure to the chemicals.
The lawmakers conclude:
“…the safety of our food supply should not come at the expense of the health and safety of meat and poultry workers.”
Advocates have been trying for at least four years to get that through the head of Obama’s USDA chief Tom Vilsack. What’s the chance of them succeeding with Trump’s USDA pick?