Two former US Government food inspectors today tell of the conditions inside America’s poultry processing plants, revealing the horrific effect the chemicals used had on their health and warning Britain: “Do not take our meat at any cost.”
Mother and daughter Sherry Medina, 57, and Karla Hadley, 37, tell of the “debilitating” effect chlorinated water used to wash the chickens had on them, but claim the use of peracetic acid as a cleanser was far more dangerous.
Sherry became so ill through her exposure to it, she almost died twice.
At one point her family were so certain they would lose her, they planned her funeral, choosing her burial plot and having her headstone made.
Karla has been left with chronic respiratory problems and suffered facial sores.
She blames the drugs that were used to treat her for the death of her unborn daughter, eight months into the pregnancy, eight years ago.
Sherry, who needs a cocktail of oxygen and drugs to stay alive, says of the chicken plants: “The chemicals they use are debilitating.
“They leave people like me with crippling conditions. God only knows what they do to the people who eat them.”
Peers would do well to read of the shocking practices Sherry and Karla claim they witnessed in their 26 years in US poultry plants before the Lords discusses the Agriculture Bill today.
The Commons last week struck down a Lords amendment to the Bill to force a post-Brexit US trade deal to meet UK animal welfare and food safety rules.
Pressure is piling on the UK to accept chlorine-washed chicken from the US or face possible retaliatory action, such as a ban on Scottish salmon imports.
Sherry and Karla say accepting chlorine-washed chicken will come at a price, talking in detail of the “unacceptable wholesale” use of chemicals they say made them gravely ill with life-long conditions, and left chicken unsafe to eat.
Former colleagues have told them conditions in the plants have only got worse, with increasing speeds in production lines placing even more reliance on the chemicals.
One of the women’s New York colleagues, Jose Navarro, 37, died from lung damage.
His family blamed exposure to the chemicals used on the birds, and his death triggered a US Government investigation that raised questions about the health risks associated with a rise in the use of the toxic, bacteria-killing chemicals.
Sherry and Karla say that every week they witnessed thousands of chickens passing into the food chain that were “not fit for human consumption”.
Despite their protests, they claim plant bosses pressured staff to overlook such issues, often refusing to stop the processing lines when asked to do so.
More than 140 birds a minute currently pass through a factory’s “evisceration line”, with inspectors tasked to oversee every chicken.
Sherry, who was forced into early retirement because of the chronic health conditions she developed, says: “I would physically touch and inspect every third bird.
“I would see 91 birds a minute, inspecting 33 of them. The process now sees 140 birds per minute.
“When you grab a bird, and you go into the cavity, you flip up the fat. When I saw faecal matter, a burst gall bladder or other bacteria, I would order it be removed to be rewashed.
“They physically should take the bird off the line and cut out the dirt, so it was clean, but because of the speed, they couldn’t keep up.
“So many were allowed through. It was and continues to be entirely wrong, and I refused to stay quiet.
“On any given a day, I could order a thousand birds to be cleaned again as I was so concerned. At one point management came to me and told me I couldn’t do what I was doing.
“I told them they had faecal matter inside. They said, ‘Sherry, you’re picking too many off. You have to stop refusing so many’.
“The manager then said, ‘They get sprayed again later down the line down. You must let it go’.
“It is peracetic acid he meant, which they use to kill the bacteria, but they still leave the faecal matter on the bird.
“It then goes on to processing, to be cut up, battered and packaged before then being sent out to the markets.
“It is like taking a pile of cow manure, spraying it with peracetic acid, before frying and saying that it is now safe to eat. It is not.”
Sherry needed to have eight operations after working at the plant in Alabama for just a year.
She has lost 25% of her lung capacity, had to have a hysterectomy and rectal repair, and has ongoing sinus problems and organ damage.
At one point she was coughing so hard she broke two ribs.
Sherry says: “My breakfast is a cocktail of drugs that I will be on for the rest of my life. When the asthma attacks began they became so bad, I tore everything loose inside.”
Other US Department of Agriculture inspectors like Sherry and Karla, as well as poultry plant workers, have blamed chemical exposure for a range of ailments, including asthma and other severe respiratory problems, burns, rashes, irritated eyes, and sinus ulcers.
Sherry and Karla saw employees with the skin on their arms dissolved by the chemicals so the bones were visible.
They also saw staff collapse on the production line if ventilation was poor.
Speaking for the first time, Karla tells how faeces, the green puss from burst gall bladders and remnants of the fungus Aspergillus fumigatus, which looks like chopped up fried eggs in a carcass and can cause lung infections in people with lowered immune systems, all passed beyond inspectors on to supermarket shelves.
Karla says: “It does not matter how many baths they go through or what they are bathed in, there is always going to be faeces and other matter in the birds as it is so overproduced and can’t be adequately checked.
“Thousands slip through the process, and the managers across the industry do nothing. The meat is not fit for human consumption.
“There were times an entire batch of birds on the line was not fit for market but despite saying they must all be removed we were overruled by the plant’s managers.
“They run the plants like the mafia. The industry is so big they ride roughshod over our rulings.”
She says the birds arrived at the plant alive, often with ammonia burns from sitting in their excrement.
Once inside, they were shackled upside down before being dazed in electrified water and then having their necks cut.
They are then dunked in chlorine vats, gutted by hand and then sprayed with peracetic acid.
Karla and Sherry now refuse to buy chicken processed in the US. Sherry drives to a market an hour from home to buy free-range chicken.
She knows it has not been fed with hormones by its size. She says: “I buy three to four-pound birds, not these monstrous 10lb, seven-week-old ones.
“How is that possible to grow that big in such a short space of time unless they are feeding it something that is not natural.”
In a direct message to PM Boris Johnson, both women warn him not to put British people at risk for the sake of a trade deal with the US.
Sherry says: “It would be unforgivable to allow US chicken in your country.”
Karla says: “Plants only care about money. You may as well be drinking a gallon of bleach if you allow what I saw on to your shelves.”
The owners of the processing plant where Sherry and Karla worked declined to comment.
America’s National Chicken Council claimed: “The US chicken industry prides itself on providing some of the safest, most abundant, most wholesome poultry products in the world.
“Chlorine is barely used as a food safety wash in processing plants in the US; it is rather used to clean and sanitize equipment.
“Peracetic acid is a food grade antiseptic that kills bacteria and microorganisms. It is peracetic acid is applied to carcasses at concentrations less acidic than products commonly found in kitchen cabinets.”
Tony Wornham, chicken farmer in Hertfordshire and NFU poultry board chariman, said: “The next time you sit down to your Sunday roast chicken, spare a moment to consider why UK farmers want the Government to back our industry, not undermine us in trade deals.
“Animal welfare, environmental protection and food safety top every farmer’s priority list. These standards are embedded in everything we do.
“On my farm, buildings are as energy efficient and clean as possible.
“Chicks are fed a diet of wheat, oilseed rape and soya from accredited feed mills and we have strict hygiene standards.
“They live in an environment of warmth and light.
“UK farmers take pride in standards and that means prevention, not a chlorine-washed cure.
“It’s a shame the same can’t be said about our counterparts around the world.”