Questions & Answers about Processing Aids Used in Chicken Production

April 14, 2013

What are processing aids?

Processing aids are substances that are approved by both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).  They are used in the production of a variety of foods – meat, poultry, produce, etc., and are not present in any significant amount in the finished product.  Processing aids perform a number of functions in the food production process, mainly to enhance food safety by reducing potential contamination in food during processing.

Are processing aids regulated?

If any of these processing aids are used in poultry processing plants, they have already gone through a rigorous testing and approval process by USDA and the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to determine their safety.  USDA and FDA keeps detailed safety and efficacy reports of any product approved for use as a processing aid.

What are common processing aids used in chicken production? 

Antimicrobials are one example of a processing aid utilized in chicken processing.  An antimicrobial is an agent that kills microorganisms or inhibits their growth.  An antimicrobial should not be confused with an “antibiotic,” which is medicine used to treat bacterial infections in humans and animals.  Think hand sanitizer vs. penicillin.

How are antimicrobials used in chicken processing?

Food-grade antimicrobials are approved for use by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food & Drug Administration as a very safe and effective way to kill or inhibit the growth of any potential bacteria and foodborne pathogens, like Salmonella. They are used to make food safer.

If an antimicrobial is used, it is used within the allowable concentration levels set forth by USDA and are incorporated into several thousand gallons of water and are diluted significantly.  The allowable concentration levels are measured in parts per million. To put one part per million into perspective, it is equivalent to one drop in two full bathtubs of water, or one minute in almost two years.

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.

What are common antimicrobials used in chicken processing?

Common antimicrobial interventions when processing chickens include the use of paracetic acid (PAA), chlorinated water, cetylpyridinium chloride (CPC), acidified sodium chlorite (ASC), organic acid rinses, bromine and others.

Peracetic acid, for example, is an organic compound, basically vinegar and hydrogen peroxide. It is permitted for use in poultry products labeled as “organic,” as well.

CPC is an antiseptic that kills bacteria and other microorganisms.  It is commonly found in toothpaste, mouthwash and nasal sprays.

How is the effectiveness of processing aids monitored? 

Companies that manufacture these products must demonstrate the effectiveness and safety of their product to both FDA and USDA before they are approved for use.  Since food safety is the top priority for the chicken industry, companies perform field trials on various processing aids to see how they reduce potential microbial contamination in their establishments.  University researchers also scientifically evaluate the effectiveness and safety of these products.  Combined, these steps have led to the safe and successful reduction of food borne pathogens on raw chicken products.

Are these processing aids present on chicken at the supermarket or a restaurant? 

In order to be approved by USDA and FDA for use as a processing aid, a product must demonstrate that it has no lasting effect after application.

These processing aids are diluted significantly, break down in water to non-harmful substances and the chicken may be rinsed before leaving the plant. When present in such insignificant amounts in any finished product, they do not affect appearance or taste and most importantly they have no impact on public health.

Peracetic acid, for example, is applied to carcasses at concentrations that are less acidic and more dilute than  products commonly found in kitchen cabinets and refrigerators.  Within the water at poultry processing plants, poultry  is treated at concentrations that are less acidic than lemon juice and more dilute than household vinegar.

What steps does the industry take to keep employees and inspectors safe?

Though antimicrobials are approved for use and are used in very low, allowable concentrations, the poultry industry takes very seriously the health and safety of our workforce and there are a number of steps and precautions in place in order 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 follows 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;
  • Air quality tests are routinely performed in poultry processing plants;
  • 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.

The poultry industry is dedicated to the safety and well-being of each and every team member, including our inspectors.  We take safety and health claims very seriously and we encourage workers and inspectors to take any concerns about safety to plant management.

Will the USDA’s proposed poultry inspection system increase the use of antimicrobials in plants?

There is no evidence that USDA’s proposed poultry inspection system will increase the use of antimicrobials in plants.

If more birds are produced, the volume of antimicrobials used may increase slightly to ensure that each bird is treated with the proper food safety interventions; the concentration levels of the antimicrobials do not increase.

But, most importantly, the volume of chicken produced is dictated by demand and the market, not line speeds or inspection systems. Increasing output simply because you can puts companies out of business.

Increasing line speeds does not equate to increased production. More than likely it means less production time, not more chickens produced, and not more antimicrobial use.

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