Can Working with Poultry Damage Your Health?

US - Poultry plant workers seem to be at higher risk of certain cancers, according to a recently published paper. An official at National Chicken Council refutes the suggestion from the researchers that these workers are exposed to cancer-causing viruses from the chickens.
calendar icon 5 November 2009
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E.S. Johnson of the School of Public Health at University of North Texas Health Science Center and co-authors have published a paper in the journal Cancer Causes and Control, which followed up a previous study into the health of a group of workers in poultry slaughter plants.

They explain that they previously studied mortality up to 1989 in 2,639 members of a local union who had ever worked in poultry slaughtering and processing plants, because they were exposed to cancer-causing viruses present in poultry.

In the new report, cancer mortality was updated to the year 2003 for 2,580 of the 2,639 subjects who worked exclusively in poultry plants. Mortality in poultry workers was compared with that in the US general population through the estimation of proportional mortality and standardised mortality ratios separately for each race/sex group and for the whole cohort.

Compared to the US general population, an excess of cancers of the buccal and nasal cavities and pharynx (base of the tongue, palate and other unspecified mouth, tonsil and oro-pharynx, nasal cavity/middle ear/accessory sinus), esophagus, recto-sigmoid/rectum/anus, liver and intra-biliary system, myelofibrosis, lymphoid leukemia and multiple myeloma was observed in particular subgroups or in the entire poultry cohort.

The authors suggest that that cancer-causing viruses present in poultry, and exposure to fumes, are candidates for an aetiological role to explain the excess occurrence of at least some of these cancers in the poultry workers. Larger studies which can control for confounding factors are urgently needed to determine the significance of these findings, they say.

Comment from National Chicken Council

Richard Lobb, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council, dismissed the study as an "astounding piece" of flawed research. He said the scientists did not adequately account for the known cancer risks of tobacco and alcohol use in the workers.

In addition, the "suggestion that raw chickens carry viruses that cause cancer in humans is pure supposition unsupported by any scientific facts or studies," Mr Lobb told Reuters Health.


Johnson E.S., Y. Zhou, C.L. Yau, D. Prabhakar, H. Ndetan, K. Singh and N. Preacely. 2009. Mortality from malignant diseases – update of the Baltimore union poultry cohort. Cancer Causes and Control. DOI 10.1007/s10552-009-9452-6

Further Reading

- You can view the full report by clicking here.
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