Chicken plant workers say chemicals sprayed on carcasses making them sick

Producing 26 million pounds of chicken a day, Georgia is the poultry capital of the nation.

The poultry industry employs over 100,000 people in the state and contributes $28 billion to the state’s economy; but U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors and workers in poultry plants across the southeast say the process of preparing chicken for grocery store shelves has made them sick.

“This is my morning breakfast,” said former USDA inspector Sherry Medina, referring to her collection of pill bottles. Medina said her day starts with a regimen of medications and oxygen.

“I’ve never had asthma in my lifetime, was never born with it, never had it – was diagnosed in 2007,” said Medina.

Medina worked a chicken processing lines for years. As a USDA inspector, her job was to inspect chicken carcasses as they came down the line. Medina said it wasn’t until 2006 when the poultry processing plant she was working in implemented the spraying of anti-microbial treatments that she slowly started to notice health issues.

Experts on both sides of the issue explain what’s in the chemicals, why they’re being used and the alternatives being used chicken plants in other countries.

“My nose is starting to burn. I can feel my face is starting to burn. It’s burning now. My throat, chest; it never stops burning,” USDA inspector Beth Summers said describing the symptoms she suffers from as she comes to work each day.

After four years of inhaling these chemical treatments, Summers said, “My face right now…It never stops, burns all the time.”

Summers worked the same chicken processing line as Medina at a Tyson plant in Albertville, Alabama. Tyson is not the only poultry processing plant that uses these chemical compounds, it is a practice used across the country to prevent deadly bacterial outbreaks.

“The idea is to kill the salmonella,” said Dr. Mike Doyle the Director of Food Safety at the University of Georgia.

Doyle’s team works with various food industries to develop ways to detect, control and eliminate harmful bacteria. Doyle said the industry is constantly looking for effective ways to kill deadly pathogens.

“The industry it continually feeling pressure from the USDA to continually reduce the level of salmonella in poultry,” said Doyle.

“It is the industry’s little secret,” said Amanda Hitt, with the Government Accountability Project’s Food Integrity Campaign.

She said the industry is under pressure to keep the levels of deadly bacteria down, and do it in the most cost-effective way, “they just blast them with these chemicals and send them on their way to your store shelves.”

Hitt said she isn’t satisfied with the level of testing done on these chemical compounds prior to their implementation, especially when it comes to worker safety.

These anti-microbial washes can include a variety of chemical compounds, including solutions containing chlorine, Peroxyacetic acid, cetylpyridium chloride, lactic acid and others.

Doyle recently patented a formula that uses levulinic acid to kill harmful bacteria. Doyle said his research shows it is more effective that current washes on the market and could be a safer alternative for workers in poultry processing plants, but is currently more expensive than other solutions on the market, adding that he hopes that he expects it to be a more affordable option in the near future.

“These products are strictly regulated by the USDA and the FDA,” said Mike Giles of the Georgia Poultry Federation. Giles said the anti-microbial washes have a proven track record and the industry goal is to offer the public safe, affordable poultry, adding that poultry companies value worker safety and want employees to notify them if they have any safety concerns.

The FDA says washes containing compounds like, peroxyacetic acid are safe.

“The antimicrobial chemicals sprayed on chicken carcasses, such as hydrogen peroxide and peracetic acid, which quickly breaks down to oxygen and acetic acid - the sour component of vinegar, will either decompose, evaporate, or are rinsed away before the food reaches the consumer,” said a statement issued by the FDA.

According to the USDA, since 2006, the use of chemical compounds have reduced salmonella contamination by 75 percent.

“I think the big issue is, how do we get safe, pathogen free poultry on our dinner table. What the poultry industry has done for some years is that, instead of making sure the chicken and turkeys are free of pathogens before they get to the processing plants,” said Jaydee Hanson, a Senior Policy Analyst with the Center for Food Safety.

Hanson argues that other countries have been able to limit bacterial contamination without the use of what he calls “caustic chemicals.”

Hanson said often contamination occurs prior to the processing plants.

“It’s really hard not to have pathogens spread through a whole flock when the operations are as crowded as most of our chicken sheds are. As they get bigger, chicken cages are stacked on top of each other, so if a sick animal has a pathogen, its droppings land on the animal below,” said Hanson. “There are ways to raise chicken in ways that don’t spread disease,” he said.

The European Food Safety Authority, or EFSA, recently approved the use of peroxyacetic acid solutions to be used as an anti-microbial wash for poultry. On both sides of the debate here in the United States, EFSA is regarded as the leading authority on food safety. Hanson notes that while EFSA approved the use of peroxyacetic acid, they have banned the use of washes containing chlorine compounds, which are used here in the United States.

“The average consumer isn’t interested in a side of bleach with their chicken, I think they’d prefer barbeque sauce,” said Hitt. “The industry isn’t really quick to let the [public] know what it takes to get a carcass ready for consumption.”

“When used properly in a process environment, they are extremely safe,” said Giles of these solutions.

“We have to balance the economics with the salmonella and potential for contamination,” said Doyle. “Do you want to pay more for your food, considerably more? Or do we want to continue to have some of the less expensive food in the world?” he said.

Complaints like Medina’s and Summer’s are not unique; poultry plant workers from across the country have submitted affidavits to the Food Integrity Campaign detailing similar issues.

“Anything from skin rashes to burning eyes, but things that are far more severe, like burns or respiratory issues; things like asthma or chronic bronchitis,” said Hitt describing the complaints she has heard from workers.

“It is pretty widespread, hearing them all over the nation,” said Stan Painter the Chairman of national union representing USDA inspectors. “The only time, as the union we can get them to come and check it out is when people are already getting sick.”

The poultry industry maintains the chemical solutions are used to maintain the highest possible food standards.

“It is not being done at the expense of worker safety,” Giles said.

Medina has filed a lawsuit against Tyson claiming her work environment was “toxic,” she states, “If you’ve got everybody out there with the same problems, respiratory infection, bronchitis, ear aches, sinus infection; when you have these same effects with six people at a shift, it ain’t one putting on.”

“I think the average person does care that people might be suffering because of how their food is produced, we don’t want our food to be produced at the cost of people getting sick or people dying,” said Hanson. “These big chicken companies can really change how they do this. In some cases when consumers and groups like ours have pushed on companies, they have changed.”

Response from Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson:

We don't want anyone hurt on the job and are committed to providing a safe work environment for everyone. This includes inspectors employed by the USDA and well as the hundreds of people who work for us.

We have procedures in place to make sure food-grade sprays or washes we use for food safety are properly applied. This covers peracetic acid (also called peroxyacetic acid), which is essentially vinegar and hydrogen peroxide.  We also have a staff of health and safety professionals who manage our workplace safety efforts.

We address work safety concerns when they're raised. We received a government complaint at Albertville in 2012, not about peracetic acid, but about the use of dry ice, also known as CO2. We investigated and added more ventilation. To our knowledge, the matter was resolved.

We're reviewing the recent lawsuit by Sherry Medina, who is part of the meat inspection union that is publicly campaigning against USDA's proposed changes in the use and number of government inspectors employed in poultry plants.