USDA poultry inspector Jose Navarro. (COURTESY OF NAVARRO FAMILY)
When Jose Navarro landed a job as a federal poultry inspector in 2006, he moved his wife and newborn son to a rural town 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.
The department is now poised to allow a further increase in line speeds, boosting the maximum by about 25 percent. This change is part of new regulations that officials say would make poultry production more efficient and reduce the number of government inspectors while increasing the number of private company inspectors.
Under the proposed rules, which could be finalized as soon as this summer, the number of chemical treatments used on the birds is also likely to increase, according to agency documents and USDA inspectors who have worked in plants where line speeds have already accelerated.
To keep speeds up, 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.”
The heightened use of chemicals would follow a pattern that has already emerged in poultry plants. In a private report to the House Appropriations Committee, the USDA said that in plants that have already accelerated line speeds, workers have been exposed to larger amounts of cleaning agents. “The use of powerful antimicrobial chemicals has increased in order to decrease microbial loads on carcasses,” according to the 2010 report, recently obtained by 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.
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 increased.
“They are mixing chemicals together in these plants, and it’s making people sick,” Hitt said. “Does it work better at killing off pathogens? Yes, but it also can send someone into respiratory arrest.”
Although 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 possible side effects on consumers of using the chemicals. Instead, they review data provided by chemical manufacturers.
Nor has the USDA studied the effects of the chemicals on its inspectors or private employees. USDA officials said that research into worker safety is a job for other agencies. But no industry-wide 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 at poultry plants show that at least five facilities had problems with chemicals 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 failing to have monitoring equipment in place that would detect when chemicals, such as ammonia, reach toxic levels in a plant.
At the poultry plant where Navarro worked, company officials rejected the notion 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 still others had “various skin diseases,” an OSHA report said.
The OSHA report cited chemicals as the suspected cause of the workers’ ailments.
Faster pace, fewer inspectors
If the White House signs off on the USDA’s proposed regulations as expected, poultry plants could speed up their slaughter lines later this year. The maximum speed for chickens would increase from 140 birds per minute to 175 per minute, and for turkeys, from 45 birds to 55 per minute. Workers, who already often complain of carpal tunnel and other musculoskeletal disorders, may have to pluck, cut and sort birds even faster.
At the same time, the new regulations would reduce the number of federal health inspectors in the plants by as much as 40 percent.
The proposed rules grew out of a USDA pilot program, which agency officials said was designed to enhance food safety by reducing pathogens. There are financial incentives for both the USDA and the industry: The agency expects to save $90 million during the next three years through 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 a range of plants across the country 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 increased, more chemical treatments have been added. Plants that used as few as one or two rinses, sprays or soaks now use as many as four or more.
Although procedures vary among plants, in a typical scenario, high-powered nozzles 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 further under the new rules because a larger volume of birds would be processed.
“If line speeds at a plant are increased and if more birds are produced, obviously the volume of antimicrobials will increase to ensure that each bird is treated with the proper food safety interventions,” Peterson said in a statement.
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 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 pathogens and prevent them from spreading. 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. The agency says it relies on the chemical review and approval process of the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA, for its part, does not conduct its own research but examines data provided by the chemical manufacturers.
Elisabeth Hagen, the USDA’s undersecretary for food safety and inspection service, said in an interview that she could not comment on how the use of chemicals under the new system would affect the presence of 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.
has to be front and center of any policy we set forward. No one is making a choice between food safety and worker safety,” Hagen said. “Bottom line, plain and simple: We would never put forward a rule that we thought would increase risk for anybody.”
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.”
Asked about the apparent contradiction between this statement and information contained in agency documents and provided by agency inspectors, the USDA released a comparison of plants operating under the pilot program, which allows them to increase line speeds to 175 birds per minute, with some plants that are not in the program. The comparison looked at how many places along the processing line chemicals were used to treat birds, and agency officials said the statistics showed there was essentially no difference between the two sets of plants.
But the comparison did not address the amount of chemicals used in the plants or their concentration. Moreover, the number of plants included in the comparison was too small to yield a statistically meaningful conclusion about any differences in chemical use.
Officials said that any increase in chemical use in recent years is the result of plants trying to comply with stricter USDA requirements for reducing pathogens, including salmonella.
Coughing up blood
At the end of each workday at Murray’s Chicken, Jose Navarro would climb into his Ford station wagon, drive by the Holy Ghost and Fire Church, and pass a single stoplight to reach his rented home in South Fallsburg, N.Y.
His wife, Nicole Byrne Navarro, said he would give “lengthy, detailed reports” each evening about his concerns about the plant, which often focused on the chemicals used to disinfect both equipment and birds.
“Some themes that were constant were poor ventilation and overuse and mishandling of chemicals which constantly irritated his lungs,” Byrne Navarro said. “Sometimes he would hold his hand over his chest and talk about the chlorine reaching intolerable levels that day.”
Several months before he died, he 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.
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.
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 that the exposure time to the chemicals has been extended. Sometimes a third chemical is added, but that practice varies from plant to plant.
Both chlorine and peracetic acid are toxic, according to the Material Safety Data Sheets that chemical manufacturers give 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 even death. Peracetic acid can damage most internal organs, including the heart, lungs and liver, the data sheets show. If inhaled, the chemical can cause “severe respiratory and mucous membrane irritation and possible chemical burns.” It can also cause “acute lung damage.” USDA officials said the chemicals are used at such low concentrations that they are not dangerous.
During the investigation that followed Navarro’s death, an OSHA inspector raised concerns about the “increase in use of disinfectants” at the plant and said “the combination of disinfectants and other chemicals” in addition to pathogens like 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.
OSHA records show that one USDA inspector was exposed to “chlorine odors” that forced a temporary evacuation of the plant. The inspector experienced an “aggravated bronchial condition” and was prescribed antibiotics. Another involved an inspector exposed to “microbial agents” and disinfectants that resulted in a “rash on arms and legs.” The inspector was given a topical steroid, records show.
Dean Koplik, the chief executive of Murray’s Chicken, said in an interview that the company is contesting the citations and that OSHA found no problems with chemical levels and exposure at the time of the agency’s visit.
Koplik 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.”
Navarro’s widow and inspectors at the plant said they believed chemicals contributed to Navarro’s death.
In a written statement, Koplik said “OSHA found no connection or causation whatsoever between the unfortunate passing of the USDA inspector and the plant environment.”
There is no conclusive evidence as to whether the chemicals killed Navarro.
OSHA officials said the agency did not render a judgment about whether the plant was responsible for Navarro’s death. Instead, OSHA officials issued a hazard-alert letter, showing they had concerns about the use of chemicals and made a series of recommendations to improve conditions at the plant.
‘Like I was choking to death’
At other poultry plants, federal inspectors have also reported starting to experience respiratory problems when additional chemicals were added to the mix where they work. They said their biggest problems seemed to come with the introduction of peracetic acid.
USDA inspector Sherry Medina recounted that she developed a severe respiratory infection one month after the Tyson Foods plant in Alabama where she worked began using peracetic acid in June 2011. The infection wouldn’t go away.
“I would walk into the plant, and I’d start wheezing. It was like I was choking to death. I coughed so hard, I broke two ribs,” said Medina, who is now on disability.
She said that the peracetic acid seeped out from the spray cabinet and that chemicals used in processing and for cleaning combined in the drains at the inspectors’ feet, causing respiratory and sinus problems.
Federal inspectors at another Tyson plant in Texas — where chlorine and peracetic acid are used — recently complained about similar problems, prompting an inspection in February by the USDA’s Safety and Health Management Division.
“When maintenance staff opened a cabinet for inspection, a significant plume of mist could be seen moving into the airstream of overhead fans, which were pointed toward the inspection stations,” a Feb. 6 USDA report said.
The report recommended that the spray heads operate at a lower velocity, that maintenance staff avoid opening cabinets during production and that exhaust ventilation be installed by the cabinets. The health investigator also recommended covering the floor drains, especially those where the inspectors work. “This will minimize the opportunity for chlorine by-products or waste PAA (peracetic acid) to enter the air” near federal inspectors.
Tyson spokesman Worth Sparkman said that drains have been covered and ventilation improved at the Texas plant. At the Alabama plant, new ventilation has been installed and managers were given training on how to monitor and react to chemical concerns, he said.
“Tyson is dedicated to the safety and well-being of each and every team member,” Sparkman said in a statement. “We take their claims very seriously and encourage them to take any concerns about safety to plant management.”
David Hosmer, president of the Southwest Council of Food Inspection Locals, said he is encouraging his members to raise concerns with the USDA about the potential long-term health effects of heightened chemical treatments.
“We are dealing with respiratory issues. We are dealing with burning eyes and sinus issues,” said Hosmer, whose council is part of the American Federation of Government Employees. “The last thing I want is for people to end up with emphysema or someone losing their eyesight. Or even death.”
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Kimberly Kindy is a government accountability reporter at The Washington Post.