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Food Integrity Campaign Blog

GAO: Safety Loophole Puts Meat and Poultry Processing Workers at Risk of Chemical Exposure

Food Integrity Campaign | December 13, 2017

By Sarah Borron

As part of processing, raw meat and poultry are routinely sprayed with chemicals that prevent bacterial growth. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported just last week that while our government works to prevent those chemicals from passing on to consumers, it’s not so careful in making sure the workers who process the meat are safe from chemical exposure. In fact, a nasty loophole leaves workers without any safety evaluation for exposure to chemicals they handle every day.

Former USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) meat inspectors have reported to the Food Integrity Campaign (FIC) numerous health issues related to chemicals used in meat and poultry plants—in some cases, leading to hospitalizations and job loss. The federal meat inspectors work alongside plant workers where they are both exposed to chemicals throughout the day.

In an affidavit, one inspector shared, “The range of health problems that those of us working in the plant experience includes asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, sinus infections, heart palpitations, eye irritation, and dizziness.” The chemicals affect both plant workers and the federal inspectors. But while federal inspectors can complain about the problem (they have whistleblower protections), the vulnerable plant workers, often without the benefits of a union, are left without recourse. One inspector shared with FIC that the plant workers, with no voice of their own, “plead with us to help them.”

Meat and poultry companies routinely use the antimicrobial spray, peracetic acid, because it’s cheap and effective in limiting foodborne pathogens on meat. Yet, airborne peracetic acid absorbs on contact with plant workers’ and inspectors’ skin. It burns the eyes, and can cause respiratory symptoms occurring hours after exposure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Despite these risks, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) currently has no permissible exposure limit, which would make filing complaints easier when workers are affected by exposure. OSHA also does not have a good way to measure levels of airborne peracetic acid. Indeed, OSHA notes that many chemicals either don’t have a permissible exposure limit or have limits that are outdated. OSHA officials told GAO that having other chemicals mix with peracetic acid “may be a serious problem” for worker safety. So-called “mixed exposures,” which occur when chemicals pool together down a drain, have led to health issues at other plants.

The case of peracetic acid illuminates larger problems with how workers aren’t protected from chemical exposure. When a chemical is used to sanitize equipment in manufacturing plants of any kind, the Environmental Protection Agency evaluates any risks to workers from the chemicals. This is true at meat packing plants at well, but not for chemicals sprayed directly on raw meat itself.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and FSIS share responsibility for evaluating the safety of chemicals sprayed on raw meat and poultry. FDA considers whether the chemicals pose any risks to consumers. FSIS evaluates any risks to FSIS inspectors posted at processing plants, but not the workers at those plants, who work in much closer contact with the chemicals. OSHA, whose mission is to protect workers, doesn’t review chemicals for worker safety at all due to lack of resources.

So, chemicals may be used on raw meat with no federal agency evaluating how using that chemical affects the safety of plant workersthe people most at risk of chemical exposure and least likely to speak out about unsafe conditions.

Even more galling, sometimes FSIS officials do have information that would help keep workers safe, but don’t use it! Chemical manufacturers must send information to FSIS called a “Safety Data Sheet,” and sometimes include safety instructions for users. Stunningly, the GAO reports that FSIS doesn’t share this information with OSHA, FSIS’s own inspectors in plants, or with the plant management and staff “because FSIS does not have a process for doing so.” [Emphasis added]

Yet, when GAO talked with the very people who could use that information, they all said they’d like to have it. In fact, that type of information would have been incredibly useful at a plant where FSIS inspectors complained about peracetic acid exposure causing health problems, and “neither plant management nor FSIS inspectors at the plant had received information to adequately protect FSIS employees from the effects of peracetic acid.” [Emphasis added]

Testimony from whistleblowing inspectors to FIC corroborates the GAO’s findings that the minimal procedures currently in place do not protect inspectors or workers from health problems, especially when plants are poorly ventilated. In a signed affidavit, a former FSIS inspector reported to FIC that chemicals in the plant were labeled, but only in English, which most of the plant workers couldn’t read.

We appreciate the GAO’s efforts to expose these loopholes and mismanagement that put workers and meat inspectors at risk. But most importantly, we applaud the brave USDA meat inspector whistleblowers who have come forward to expose the dangers of chemical use in plants.