NIOSH Says USDA Does Not Consider Safety When approving Chemicals

NIOSH Comments that USDA approval of antimicrobial chemicals used in poultry plants does not consider safety and exposure can  result in occupational illness.

Poultry processing plants are harsh environments with potential risks for both  line workers and federal inspectors, see and there have been several news reports about USDA inspectors being sickened, no rx at least one fatally, prescription from exposure to antimicrobial chemicals used to reduce bacteria.

Recently NIOSH has been  studying the occupational safety aspects in poultry plants especially eye and respiratory irritation. In very brief summary NIOSH found the following factors contributed to the problem:

  • Exposure to chlorine and other chemicals
  • Insufficient ventilation
  • Presence of bird diseases, fecal matter and ingesta

The USDA is encouraging the greater use of antimicrobial chemicals in order to make the food supply safer and they have been approving the use of additional antimicrobial chemicals such as peracetic acid. Most workers and plant managers may reasonably assume that these antimicrobial chemicals have been thoroughly tested before receiving USDA approval. This statement is true for efficacy but not for worker safety. In NIOSH’s own words:

New disinfection systems using a variety of other antimicrobials besides chlorine (e.g., ozone, bromine compounds, lactic acid, citric acid, chlorine dioxide, and peroxyacetic acid) continue to be approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). As these systems are introduced to the market and implemented by industry facilities, it should be noted that USDA approval of such systems falls under their food safety directive for purposes of killing bacteria. USDA approval does not speak to potential occupational exposure concerns for workers in facilities where such systems are installed and operated

Thus the USDA leaves it up to the individual poultry processing plants to assess and control the hazards of the chemicals they are using.

All biocidal chemicals pose a risk of exposure to operators but these chemicals can be used safely so long as adequate engineering controls such as extraction hoods and ventilation, continuous gas monitoring to ensure that that the concentrations are within safe limits, PPE as needed, good work practices designed to reduce exposure and adequate training are all employed.