When Jose Navarro landed a job as a federal poultry inspector in 2006, he moved his wife and newborn son to South Fallsburg, in
upstate New York near the processing plant, believing it was a steppingstone to a better life.
Five years later, Navarro was dead. The 37-year-old’s lungs had bled out.
His death triggered a federal investigation that raised questions about the health risks associated with a rise in the use of toxic, bacteria-killing chemicals in poultry plants.
Agriculture Department health inspectors say processing plants are turning to the chemicals to remove contaminants that escape notice as processing-line speeds have accelerated, in part to meet growing consumer demand for chicken and turkey.
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The department is poised to allow a further increase in line speeds, boosting the maximum speed by about 25 percent. This change is part of new regulations that officials say would make poultry production more efficient and transfer more responsibility for inspections to industry.
Under the new rules, which could be finalized this summer, the number of chemical treatments used on birds is also likely to increase, according to agency documents and USDA inspectors. It is unclear whether the new rules would affect processing of organic poultry.
To keep speeds up, the new regulations would allow visibly contaminated birds to remain on the lines — rather than being discarded or removed for offline cleaning, as is common practice. The proposed rules say “all carcasses” on the line would be treated with antimicrobial chemicals “whether they are contaminated or not.”
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, sinus ulcers and other sinus problems.
Amanda Hitt, director of the Food Integrity Campaign with the Government Accountability Project, said her group has been collecting statements for the past two years from inspectors reporting illnesses and injuries due to chemical exposure in poultry plants where slaughter-line speeds have already increased.
“They are mixing chemicals together in these plants, and it’s making people sick,” said Hitt. “Does it work better at killing off pathogens? Yes, but it also can send someone into respiratory arrest.”
While federal officials say the enhanced use of chemicals can promote public health by fighting such contaminants as salmonella, government agencies have not conducted independent research into the chemicals’ possible side effects on consumers. Instead, they review data provided by chemical manufacturers.
Nor has the USDA studied the effects of the chemicals on its inspectors or on industry employees. USDA officials said research into worker safety is a job for other agencies. But no industrywide study has been done by the government, and it does not keep a comprehensive record of illnesses possibly caused by the use of chemicals in the poultry industry.
Inspections by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) at poultry plants show that at least five facilities had problems with chemicals during the past three years, according to agency documents. The most common citations were for failing to properly label hazardous chemicals, failing to train employees on how to handle the chemicals and a failure to have monitoring equipment that would detect when chemicals, such as ammonia, reach toxic levels.
At Murray’s Chicken, the poultry plant where Navarro worked, company officials rejected that chemicals killed him.
During the investigation at the plant, inspectors and plant workers offered a raft of complaints. They said they suffered from irritation to their respiratory system, two reported “coughing up blood,” and others had “various skin diseases,” an OSHA report said.
The OSHA report cited chemicals as the suspected cause of the workers’ ailments.
At the time of Navarro’s death, Murray’s Chicken was using chlorine and peracetic acid to treat the birds, according to federal records and interviews with company officials.
Several months before he died, Navarro coughed up blood, but it “self-resolved,” according to the autopsy report. Then on Nov. 19, 2011, he began coughing up blood and went to the hospital, where his lungs continued to hemorrhage. He died a week later after his lungs and kidneys failed, the autopsy report said.
Chlorine and peracetic acid are two of the most commonly used chemicals in plants, according to OSHA inspection documents and interviews with USDA inspectors and poultry plant workers.
At plants where line speeds have been increased, inspectors and plant workers say chemical use is on the rise and the exposure time to the chemicals has also been extended. Sometimes a third chemical is added, but that practice varies from plant to plant.
Chlorine and peracetic acid are toxic, according to the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) provided by chemical manufacturers to the plants, which in turn are required to post them.
For chlorine, the data sheets say exposure can cause lung damage, emotional disturbances and death. Peracetic acid can damage most internal organs, including the heart, lungs and liver, the data sheets show. If the chemical is inhaled, it can cause “severe respiratory and mucous membrane irritation and possible chemical burns.” It can also cause “acute lung damage.”
During the investigation that followed Navarro’s death, an OSHA inspector said, “the combination of disinfectants and other chemicals” in addition to pathogens such as salmonella “could be causing significant health problems for processing-plant occupants,” OSHA documents show.
OSHA issued four citations. Two were for “serious” violations, which included failing to provide inspectors with training about hazardous chemicals and failing to record inspector injuries in a federally mandated log.
Murray’s Chicken Chief Executive Dean Koplik said in an interview that the company is contesting the citations, and that OSHA did not find any problems with chemical levels and exposure at the time of the agency’s visit. He also dismissed OSHA’s findings that other workers suffered from respiratory problems, saying the agency “made some vague allegation about respiratory issues, but it never provided details. It’s upstate New York, and it was in the winter. People get respiratory issues.”
There is no conclusive evidence as to whether the chemicals killed Navarro.
If the Obama administration signs off on the USDA’s proposed regulations as expected, poultry plants could speed up slaughter lines this year. The maximum speed for chickens would increase from 140 birds a minute to 175 birds a minute, for turkeys 45 to 55 a minute. Workers, who already often complain of carpal tunnel and other musculoskeletal disorders, will have to pluck, chop and sort birds even faster.
At the same time, the new regulations would reduce the number of federal health inspectors in the plants by up to 40 percent.
The new regulations hold financial incentives for both the USDA and the industry: The agency expects to save $90 million during the next three years from the staff reductions, and poultry plants could save more than $200 million annually.
The combination of faster processing and fewer government eyeballs means that companies will increasingly rely on chemicals to keep the poultry free of contaminants, according to interviews with six current and former USDA inspectors who have worked in plants where slaughter line speeds have accelerated.
“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,” said Phyllis McKelvey, who worked as a USDA poultry inspector for 14 years until she retired in 2010. “Their attitude is, let the chemicals do the work.”
In plants where line speeds have already increased, more chemical treatments have been added. Plants that used one or two rinses, sprays or soaks now use as many as four.
While procedures vary among plants, in a typical scenario, high-powered nozzles first shoot water and chemicals into the interior of a bird and along its surface. Next, the bird moves through one or two spray cabinets, where it is showered with other chemicals. Finally, it is chilled and soaked, usually in chlorine and water.
“They are using the chemicals as a stopgap measure,” said Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for Food & Water Watch, a consumer-advocacy group.
Ashley Peterson, the National Chicken Council’s vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs, said the volume of chemicals would increase under the new rules.
But she said this would be done safely. Peterson said that processing plants will use only USDA-approved chemicals, that the chemicals are “diluted significantly” and that plants are already taking steps to minimize workers’ exposure to them, such as enclosing chemical-spray stations and improving ventilation.
The 49-page proposed regulation allows for the use of additional chemical treatments with the new inspection system. For example, plants will be allowed to use chemicals on “air chilled” birds that traditionally relied only on low temperatures to kill and prevent the spread of pathogens. The proposed rule also encourages plants to use chemicals along the processing line, not just at the end.
The USDA has not conducted research into possible health risks that chemical treatments could pose for consumers of the poultry products but instead says it relies on the chemical review and approval process of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA, for its part, does not conduct its own research but examines data provided by the chemical manufacturers.
Elizabeth Hagen, the USDA’s undersecretary for food safety and inspection service, said she could not comment on how the use of chemicals under the new system would affect pathogens. But she said the program would modernize inspections, for instance by positioning inspectors more strategically, and save the lives of as many as 5,000 consumers.
After the interview, the USDA provided a statement saying, “We have no reason to believe chemical usage would increase under this proposed new inspection system, if implemented.”