With U.S. chicken consumption rising steadily, poultry processing plants nationwide are poised to implement changes that will injure and sicken many workers. Instead of meeting rising demand by expanding facilities and hiring additional workers, the poultry processing industry is poised to increase maximum line speeds and rely more heavily on the use of highly toxic chemicals to treat contaminated chicken.
A number of reports have been published explaining the dangers of increasing the already-maximized line speeds in chicken plants, which will boost the number of chickens line workers must inspect from 140 per minute to 175 per minute. Regulations that would allow the speed increase at chicken plants are expected to be signed into law as early as this summer.
But along with a heightened risk of physical injuries these new laws would encourage, the risk of serious illness and death is likely to go up as well due to increased reliance on chemical treatments to clean the chicken.
In a new report about chemical usage at chicken plants, the Washington Post explains that the new regulations “would allow visibly contaminated poultry carcasses to remain online for treatment” — rather than being discarded or removed for off-line cleaning, as is now common practice. The proposed rules say “all carcasses” on the line would be treated with antimicrobial chemicals “whether they are contaminated or not.”
Contamination comes from a number of sources from fecal matter to diseased chicken, so the new laws in effect would allow chicken plants to sell dirtier but potentially more bacteria-free chicken.
“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,” Phyllis McKelvey, a recently retired U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) poultry inspector, told the Washington Post. “Their attitude is, let the chemicals do the work.”
Current levels of the chemical treatments, consisting mainly of chlorine and peracetic acid, already have an adverse impact on those exposed to them. According to the Washington Post, “In interviews, more than two dozen USDA inspectors and poultry industry employees described a range of ailments they attributed to chemical exposure, including asthma and other severe respiratory problems, burns, rashes, irritated eyes, and sinus ulcers and other sinus problems.”
The article even details the death of one USDA inspector Jose Navarro, whose lungs bled out not long after he began working in a chicken plant. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) suspects the poultry plant chemicals are to blame for Mr. Navarro’s death.
Tragically, Americans can’t rely on government officials to intervene and do what’s best for the workers, American consumers, and the environment. Strapped by budget cuts, the USDA expects that the new regulations allowing greater reliance on chemicals will allow the agency to reduce its staff and save $90 million during the next three years.
As for the chemicals themselves, neither the USDA nor U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have conducted independent safety research on the possible side effects all these chemicals have on workers and consumers. “Instead, they review data provided by the chemical manufacturers,” the Washington Post report says.
Making matters worse, the federal government does not keep a comprehensive record of chemical-related illnesses in the poultry industry, so it’s nearly impossible to get a full look at the problem. What we do know is that OSHA records have found at least five chicken processing plants have had chemical-related problems in the past three years, with citations given to improper labeling of hazardous chemicals, inadequate employee training on handling the chemicals, and failing to have equipment that monitors the chemicals and warns when they have reached toxic levels.
Fortunately there are watchdog groups such as the Government Accountability Project (GAP) that keep track of how government officials and corporations often fail the general public with policies and legislation that’s often designed to put profits above all else. Last week, GAP published affidavits from USDA inspectors who are blowing the whistle on the dangerous health problems that chemical exposure in poultry plants presents to government and plant workers alike.