WASHINGTON – A story in the Washington Post scrutinizes the use of antimicrobial chemicals in the poultry industry and suggests a link between increased use of such chemicals and line speeds. The story also suggests that federal poultry inspectors are being exposed to dangerously high levels of chemicals.

The Washington Post story is based on a private report by the US Department of Agriculture for the House Appropriations Committee. According to the Post report, USDA said workers have been exposed to higher levels of chemicals in plants that have faster line speeds. Additionally, interviews with current and former USDA inspectors and poultry industry employees reveal a wide range of health problems they attributed to chemical exposure, including respiratory problems, eye and sinus irritation among other ailments.

The report comes as USDA plans to release a final rule on poultry inspections that industry advocates have said will help modernize the industry. Under the USDA program, company employees in most chicken and turkey slaughter plants would be responsible for checking eviscerated carcasses for visual defects such as bruising and sorting out those that are unlikely to pass federal inspection. A single federal inspector would be stationed at the end of the line, just before the chill tank, to conduct a final visual inspection. Other USDA personnel will work in the plant, but off the line, to ensure the plant is meeting its pathogen reduction program and its Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) program.

Elisabeth Hagen, USDA's undersecretary for the Food Safety and Inspection Service, was quoted in the Washington Post story as saying the new inspection plan would save the lives of more than 5,000 consumers who become ill from foodborne pathogens.

"Food safety 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 in the Washington Post article.

Poultry plants also would be allowed to run evisceration lines at higher speeds than allowed by the existing inspection systems, which has drawn protests from activists and union groups who say the new inspection regime is an attempt to privatize food safety inspections.

The National Chicken Council responded to the Washington Post report, saying the industry takes the health and safety of its workforce seriously and it has taken steps to minimize workers’ exposure to chemicals. NCC added that the chicken production is dictated by demand and the market, not line speeds or inspection systems, and that higher line speeds do not equate to more chickens being produced.

"We take very seriously the health and safety of everyone working in our plants," said Tom Super, NCC vice president of communications. "It is ironic that these inspectors, their union and their allies are claiming how bad the work environment is in the plants, yet they're fighting tooth and nail to stay in them, in an attempt to save some taxpayer-funded jobs that have proven unnecessary over the past 13 years."