The National Chicken Council (NCC) released a statement yesterday in response to an article that appeared in The Washington Post, reaffirming its stance that food-grade antimicrobials are safe to use in poultry production.
"Food-grade antimicrobials are approved for use by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and classified as 'Generally Recognized As Safe' by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration at the recommended use levels as a very safe and effective way to kill or inhibit the growth of any potential foodborne pathogens, like Salmonella, on raw poultry products," the NCC said.
"When administered properly at the federally recommended use levels, these antimicrobials are safe for poultry products, for consumers and for those working in the plant," the group continued. "These levels are frequently tested by both USDA and plant personnel to ensure they are at safe levels for the product and for workers in the plant."
The NCC also noted that while the antimicrobials approved for use are used in very low concentrations, the poultry industry takes very seriously the health and safety of its workforce, and recommends the following steps and precautions to minimize any exposure to them:
- When diluted antimicrobials are applied to carcasses, they are done so in controlled areas (inside of closed equipment or inside the chiller) to minimize any potential exposure to employees;
- In order to ensure proper ventilation, poultry processing plants follow strict guidelines for air flow set by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers. Engineering controls such as ventilation are acceptable means to control employee exposure to hazards;
- Workers and companies must comply with OSHA standards, wear personal protective equipment and complete required training programs;
- The mixing of water and antimicrobials is a highly automated process in poultry plants so that workers rarely come into contact with any undiluted agents. Most of these antimicrobials have a pungent odor that if an excessive concentration were to occur, it would be taken care of immediately. Therefore, continued exposure to any potential harmful level is very rare.
NCC and others in the scientific community also contested The Washington Post article's assertion that antimicrobial use would increase if USDA's poultry inspection proposal goes through.
"Among many other inaccuracies in Kimberly Kindy's article, NCC takes exception to the Post's characterization of our statement that 'the volume of chemicals would increase further under the new rules because a larger volume of birds would be processed,'" the NCC said. "The volume of chicken produced is dictated by demand and the market, not line speeds or inspection systems. Increasing line speeds does not equate to more chickens being produced. More than likely it means less production time, not more chickens produced, and not more antimicrobial use."
Dr. S. F. Bilgili, a professor in Auburn University's Department of Poultry Science, and a past president of the Poultry Science Association, added, "The slight increase in processing line speeds that may occur as a result of the proposed changes to the U.S. poultry inspection system is not likely to change the antimicrobial use much, as novel application sites (i.e., use in finishing chillers rather than pre- and final chill tanks) and delivery methods (i.e., mist sprays rather than as a carcass dip) have already reduced the antimicrobial use significantly. Furthermore, novel technologies continue to be developed and commercialized to enhance the antimicrobial efficacy at lower application levels," he said.
The NCC noted that a March 2012 CDC/NIOSH Health Hazard Evaluation of a poultry plant tested employees who worked in areas where antimicrobials were used the most, and found their reported symptoms (itchy eyes, sneezing, blurry vision, chest tightness) were not related to increased levels of antimicrobials. The tests that were conducted as part of this evaluation revealed minimum, often even undetectable levels, in almost every case – all well below the permissible exposure limits for chemicals set forth by OSHA.