CHEROKEE COUNTY, Ga. - A Cherokee County woman said the years she spent working inside Georgia chicken plants made her sick, and her doctor agrees.
In April, Channel 2 Action News first told you about complaints that chemicals used to wash chickens at the slaughterhouse are harming plant workers.
Now, a food safety advocate said those workers have reason to be concerned.
"I'd get in my car, I have to sit there 10 minutes before I could drive, trying to get air to breathe,” said former USDA inspector Gail Jarrett. "I knew that I had to get out of that plant."
Now that she's out, Jarret says life is very different.
"I mostly sit at home, pulling an oxygen tank behind me. It's bad," Jarrett.
For 16 years, Jarret was a USDA inspector on poultry processing lines.
She started the Goldkist plant in Elijay, then transferred to Pilgrim's Pride in Canton. Pilgrim’s Pride now owns both locations.
"I went to the lung doctor finally, because it got so bad,” Jarrett said.
Her doctor provided a letter stating, "While many of her symptoms can be attributable to tobacco smoke, she also endures deleterious effects from occupational exposure to chlorine (bleach)."
said she stopped smoking 10 years ago.
Chlorine is one of the chemical compounds sprayed on poultry carcasses to fight deadly bacteria.
"When used properly in a process environment, they're extremely safe," said Mike Giles of the Georgia Poultry Federation.
said compounds are strictly regulated by the USDA and FDA.
But a Channel 2 Action News investigation found multiples complaints just like Jarrett's.
"There are problems for the workers," said Jaydee Hanson with the Center for Food Safety. He said many of the chemical compounds carry warnings against inhaling the vapors.
“Workers don't have much choice they are in a plant that is washing these things down," Hanson said.
We contacted Pilgrim’s Pride for comment on this story. Spokesperson Cameron Bruett emailed the following statement:
"The safety of our products and the provision of a safe working environment for our Pilgrim’s team members and our partners at USDA are priorities that cannot be compromised. We promote a workplace environment where our team members are encouraged to bring concerns to our plant health and safety professionals and when concerns are raised, they are addressed. We take any claim that could negatively impact our high standards for employee health and safety seriously.
"The approval and use of antimicrobials are governed by federal authorities and we utilize these food safety tools in accordance with federal regulation to safely process and deliver quality products to consumers around the world.
"As an employer of thousands of hard-working Georgians across our seven facilities in the
state, we are proud to be a part of the Georgia poultry industry."
"I would like them to make it safer for us to work and not fear what's it going to do to them later,” Jarrett said.
According to the USDA, since 2006 the use of the compounds have reduced outbreaks of salmonella by 75 percent.
These inspectors are USDA employees working inside the plants.
No agency we spoke to denied that the chemicals could be causing or exacerbating inspectors’ health problems. The USDA said they encourage people to come forward and said they will address their concerns.