General Overview

Jungle Redux: Food and Food Worker Safety

To mention food and toxic chemicals in the same sentence raises eyebrows or even alarm, but food is like any other major industry: It uses mechanical and chemical processes to make a product. Some of the chemicals used in food production, or output as waste from that production are toxic and regulated by the EPA.

Food safety has been a central concern since the publication of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” who famously quipped that he aimed the book at America’s heart and hit it in the stomach. It turns out that working conditions (what Sinclair meant by “heart”) and food safety (the stomach) are related. If a subsegment of the industry is bad at one, it is likely to be bad at the other as well.

First, a look at the chemicals used or emitted by the food industry. Some are expected: ammonia (byproduct of cleaning processes but also of decomposition of vegetable and other organic matter), nitrates and nitrites (used for preserving food), organic solvents, particularly methanol, appear with high volumes. Some chemicals do not immediately come to mind when thinking of food: the amount of barium compounds, primarily but not exclusively used while making vegetable oils, for example, is prominent in the mix. Also, a lot of metal and metal compounds  (copper, nickel, even lead) waste are reported, most likely due to canning.

Food industry toxic chemical emissions in millions of pounds

Another insight from the toxic release data: Industry practices change. The use of sulfuric acid has dropped nearly seven-fold in the last 10 years, while nitric acid use increased substantially.

A more thorough analysis would reveal differences between sectors and companies, similar to the work that we did for the auto industry ( The focus of this blog though is on the relationship between food and food industry worker safety.

In order to examine this link, we compared environmental violation data with the number of accidents by food industry sector. In order to even out the differences in the number of facilities in each sector, we looked at the percentage of facilities that had violations or accidents among all facilities in that sector. The scatter plot of violations against accidents shows the relationship between the two.

Data derived from EPA and OSHA regulatory filings for the five years through 2020 using primary activity codes (NAICS)

There are outliers: Poultry processing has a lot of violations, but its number of accidents is exceptionally high. Among all the food sectors, poultry processing has the highest percentage of facilities reporting accidents. Meat processing, where workers are similarly working with knives near one another, ranks third by the same measure. Meat processing does not rank as high in environmental violations.

Cheese makers, whose manufacturing process is chemically intensive, run afoul of the EPA quite often. Their worker safety record is closer to the bottom than the top, although there are no sharp instruments involved here.

For those of us who enjoy alcoholic beverages, it is comforting to know that wineries and breweries compare well to the rest of the food industry on both environmental and worker safety measures.

Activity Accidents Rank Violations Rank
Poultry Processing 1 8
Frozen Specialty Food Manufacturing 2 6
Meat Processed from Carcasses 3 16
Other Snack Food Manufacturing 4 7
Dog and Cat Food Manufacturing 5 12
Soft Drink Manufacturing 6 24
Rendering and Meat Byproduct Processing 7 17
Fluid Milk Manufacturing 8 11
Ice Cream and Frozen Dessert Manufacturing 9 21
Animal (except Poultry) Slaughtering 10 20
Cheese Manufacturing 11 5
Other Oilseed Processing 12 25
Frozen Fruit, Juice, and Vegetable Manufacturing 13 9
Soybean and Other Oilseed Processing 14 4
Commercial Bakeries 15 19
Flavoring Syrup and Concentrate Manufacturing 16 14
Fruit and Vegetable Canning 17 10
Flour Milling 18 18
Dry, Condensed, and Evaporated Dairy Product Manufacturing 19 2
All Other Miscellaneous Food Manufacturing 20 13
Spice and Extract Manufacturing 21 1
Breweries 22 28
Seafood Product Preparation and Packaging 23 15
Coffee and Tea Manufacturing 24 23
Other Animal Food Manufacturing 25 22
Fats and Oils Refining and Blending 26 3
Seafood Canning 27 26
Fresh and Frozen Seafood Processing 28 27
Wineries 29 29