Protecting Food. Empowering Whistleblowers.

Food Integrity Campaign Blog

Chemical Use Still Causing Trouble in Meat and Poultry Industry

Alyssa Doom | August 21, 2014

What are companies using to clean off your meat these days? Most employees working in processing plants don’t know either. But reports from USDA inspectors about health problems related to chemicals continue to pour in here at FIC, and fingers are pointing at antimicrobial cleaners.

Companies use a wide variety of chemicals to remove bacterial contaminants from meat and poultry. For example, chicken carcasses are typically soaked in a mixture of water and a substance called peracetic acid to kill foodborne pathogens before being processed for consumption. Companies also use many different cleaning agents to sanitize facilities. Some speculate that chlorine, peracetic acid, and orlactic acid are to blame for symptoms like eye irritation, dizziness, headaches, and respiratory problems. But it’s tough to say what the source of many ailments could be when so many different chemicals are being used in confined spaces. 

Chemical data haven’t become any more accessible since FIC exposed whistleblower concerns last year. Inspectors tell FIC that chemicals are used excessively in plants, yet they receive very little information about these substances. They have limited access to Material Safety Data Sheets, which are documents provided by manufacturers that provide extensive data about substances, including information on health hazards and safe handling guidelines. OSHA requires companies to provide these records upon request of USDA inspection personnel, but it seems these requests are rarely granted. One inspector tells FIC that company employees “don’t even know what this form is or where it’s located.” Furthermore, it’s even harder to keep track of chemicals, because they are constantly changing. 

Typically, slaughter, processing and cleaning agents are handled by plant employees. But there is very little information about the type and amount of training they receive, and companies are not required to disclose this information to USDA. Inspectors tell FIC they have reason to believe that plant personnel, in fact, have very little training. This assumption is based on witnessing improper diluting, mixing, and application of chemicals. Additionally, high turnover rates make it difficult to keep trained and experienced staff working in these low-paying industry jobs. 

Poor ventilation in many of these factories allows chemicals to linger in the air, exacerbating health problems. Inspectors say that their complaints rarely result in improved air quality. Plant managers brush off demands for change, saying inspectors should have understood the risk of chemical exposure when they signed agreements with USDA to take inspection jobs. But this argument isn’t fair, as companies are failing to abide by guidelines for proper chemical usage. The truth is, many plants are decades old and companies aren’t interested in shelling out money for facility upgrades.  

There is also concern about the reactions that company workers are having to these chemicals. Company line workers have very few rights and therefore fear speaking out about the need for change. 

Some inspectors, like USDA whistleblower Sherry Medina, have been forced to leave their jobs due to severe illness resulting from long-term exposure to chemicals used in plants. Doctors have even told some inspectors to start looking for different jobs because of the toll that their work environment is taking on their bodies. As it turns out, plant workers may not be the only group affected by these dangerous industry practices.  

Stay tuned for information about how these chemicals may affect consumers!



Alyssa Doom is Investigation & Outreach Coordinator for the Food Integrity Campaign.