Dioxin Found in Tyson Chickens

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Star City Grower, Pine Bluff Plant Investigated

“Chickens don’t normally come with dioxin, so there’s got to be some source for it someplace, and we’re trying to find it.” -Archie Schaffer of Tyson

“Federal inspectors recently found high levels of toxic dioxin in chickens pulled from two Tyson Foods Inc. poultry processing plants, spurring a government probe to track the sources of the dangerous chemical.

The two chickens, among 80 sampled in 24 states by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service eight months ago and tested over the last few weeks in an Environmental Protection Agency-run study of nationwide dioxin levels, were the only ones in the study that showed abnormally high levels. Previously, the USDA had tested the country’s beef and pork companies for dioxin levels without encountering any abnormal results.

According to EPA documents and a source close to the investigation, one of the chickens came from Tyson’s processing plant in Pine Bluff, and the other from its plant in Seguin, Texas, both of which are basic chicken slaughterhouses. Through Tyson’s quality control system, investigators with the EPA, USDA and the Food and Drug Administration quickly determined that the chicken sampled from the Pine Bluff plant was raised at Hill Top Farms in Star City, a Tyson contract grower run by Rebecca Case. The other chicken, according to the source, was raised at Johnson Farm in the Seguin area.

“Chickens don’t normally come with dioxin, so there’s got to be some source for it someplace, and we’re trying to find it,” says Tyson spokesman Archie Schaffer.

Since the dioxin discovery was made, the two plants and two farms both have been inspected by agents of the three federal agencies, according to EPA spokeswoman Denise Kerns. Additional birds have been taken from the plants and farms for examination, she says, and other samples, including chicken litter, soil and feed, also have been taken.

EPA documents indicate that all samples taken in the investigation are being sent to the EPA’s Environmental Chemistry Laboratory in Mississippi. The Arkansas State Plant Board also has been involved in the investigation, according to assistant director Darryl Little, examining the Star City farm on May 29 for evidence of any illegal pesticide use that may have led to the high dioxin readings. The samples are still being analyzed, says Little. Likewise, follow-up federal studies of the suspect plants and farms have not been completed, says Kerns of the EPA.

Tyson’s Take

“We were notified of our involvement in this matter a couple of weeks ago,” says Schaffer of Tyson, “and began immediately working with the government agencies to try to identify the potential source so that it can be eliminated. Even though we have been assured by USDA, EPA and FDA that these levels are very low and pose no imminent health hazard, we are going to do everything possible to work with them to identify and eliminate the source.

“In addition to working with … the government agencies, we are doing additional testing on our own of all the possible inputs and sources – everything from the feed ingredients to the litter.”

So far, Schaffer says, Tyson hasn’t reached any conclusions. Schaffer says that Tyson regularly tests for pesticide residues on its chicken, but dioxin is not one the chemicals tested for.

Dreaded Chemical

“Dioxin is the generic name for a group of hundreds of chemical compounds, the most commonly known of which are toxic. It is an unintended byproduct of natural events like volcanic eruptions and forest fires, as well as man-made processes like manufacturing, incineration, paper and pulp bleaching and exhaust emissions. Dioxin is formed by burning chlorine-based chemical compounds with hydrocarbons.

“Everybody has some dioxin in their bodies,” says Kerns of the EPA. “It’s just a very ubiquitous substance.”

Dioxin is found throughout the industrial world in air, water and soil, as well as in food.

In animal studies, it has proven to be a potent cancer-causing agent, and also causes gastric ulcers, immunotoxicity, impaired reproductive performance and vascular lesions.

Human exposure to dioxin has been shown to cause liver and nervous system damage, as well as the skin disease chloracne, which was contracted by residents of Seveso, Italy, when they were exposed to dioxin after an industrial accident in 1976.

Dioxin was the primary toxic contaminant in Agent Orange, a defoliant widely used in Vietnam during the 1960s, and has been implicated as the cause of various symptoms described by veterans exposed to the defoliant. In animals, dioxin has a high affinity for fatty substances, and is found in its highest concentrations in fat tissue, where it can accumulate over time.

Arkansans, of course, became familiar with dioxin from the EPA Superfund sites in Jacksonville. The former Vertac plant in Jacksonville manufactured Agent Orange, and is thus profoundly contaminated with dioxin. Cleanup at the site is expected to take several more years, and dioxin wastes are still being incinerated at the site. Two of the city’s landfills, where dioxin from the Vertac plant was dumped, required a $5 million cleanup.

EPA Screw-up

On May 20, the Plant Board received an urgent and apparently exaggerated memorandum from the EPA concerning the poultry dioxin levels. In a display of shabby government reporting, the EPA said that “dangerously high levels of dioxin” were found in four samples of poultry. Actually, it turns out, the levels found were considered “elevated,” but no one has said anything about “dangerous” yet, and the number of dioxin-laced chickens was two, not four. However, the EPA doesn’t really have any standard for acceptable level of dioxin content in food products, according to Kerns.

“An article in the June 2 edition of Food Chemical News, which disclosed the existence of the poultry dioxin study but didn’t name the company or the farms involved, quoted unnamed sources as saying that 78 of the chickens sampled had dioxin readings of 1.8 parts per trillion or below, in keeping with earlier studies. But two of the samples showed levels of 16.8 and 19.8 ppt, the article said. Neither the EPA or the USDA would confirm or comment on these levels.

The memo from the EPA to the Plant board seemed to point the finger at agricultural spraying. “According to USDA officials,” it says, “the dioxin profile found in the … samples is similar to dioxin profiles arising from exposure to the herbicide 2,4,5,T,” now banned from usage in this country. “The USDA has determined that the chickens sampled originated from facilities in Star City, Arkansas, Russellville, Arkansas and Duluth, Georgia.”

Later, the EPA sent a correction to its memo, mysteriously scratching Russellville and Duluth from the list. According to a source close to the investigation, EPA became confused because the owner of the growing operation in Seguin, Texas, lives in Russellville. There was no immediate explanation, however, about the scratching of the Georgia grower from the list.

“I think that note reflects a hurried effort on the part of somebody to put something together to take action on this,” says Kerns of the EPA. “I really don’t know who the author of this was.”

Little, of the plant board, has not been impressed with the EPA’s thoroughness. “When it is all said and done,” says Little, “I think it will all show how the federal government can really jump the gun and potentially damage an industry.”

The original EPA memo theorized several routes that the herbicide could have taken to contaminate the chickens: application near the “holding pens”; on vehicles used to transport the chickens to processing facilities; or through feed contaminated by the herbicide.

For his part, Little is skeptical that Arkansas farmers are using 2,4,5,T at all because Plant Board tests haven’t shown any traces of the chemical over the years.

“If there were any of it out there, believe me, these folks would use it,” he says.

“It was a pretty popular product.”