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