WASHINGTON – The Agriculture Department is reviewing research that shows new bacteria-killing chemicals used in chicken slaughterhouses may be masking the presence of salmonella and other pathogens that remain on the birds that consumers buy, according to records and interviews.
Academic researchers agree that the chemicals could be overwhelming an antiquated testing process. Several of the scientists have been enlisted by the USDA’s food safety experts to help resolve the matter.
The issue came to the department’s attention this spring after chemical companies pointed to academic research that shows there could be a problem and told the USDA that further study was needed.
This is a valid concern, said Catherine Cutter, chairwoman of Penn State University’s Food Safety Impact Group, whose scientific work was referenced in materials chemical companies provided to the USDA.
The new controversy comes as the number and strength of chemicals used on poultry-processing lines is increasing as plants scramble to meet new USDA demands to slash pathogens.
Some USDA inspectors said they believe such chemicals can contribute to a host of medical problems, including respiratory ailments and persistent skin rashes, the Washington Post reported in April. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is conducting a follow-up investigation into a New York poultry plant where one inspector died after his lungs bled out in 2011.
The latest allegations – that the stronger chemicals are undermining testing – are spurring finger-pointing among rival companies competing to sell their products to chicken processors. The companies say their competitors are the ones tripping up the tests.
At issue in the latest allegations is the testing procedure the USDA requires. As the chicken moves down the processing line, the bird is sprayed and bathed in an average of three to four different chemicals. To check that most bacteria have been killed, occasional test birds are pulled off the line and tossed into plastic bags filled with a solution that collects any remaining pathogens. That solution is sent to a lab for testing, which occurs about 24 hours later. Meanwhile, the bird is placed back on the line and ultimately packaged, shipped and sold.
Scientists say in order for tests to be accurate, it is critical that the pathogen-killing chemicals are quickly neutralized by the solution. If the chemicals continue to kill bacteria, they indicate the birds are safer to eat than they actually are.