Turkey Day is on the way. Workers employed in U.S. turkey processing plants are asking for your help to secure safer working conditions. These workers handle about 30 turkeys per minute—30 turkeys per minute—on the production line. The faster the production line moves, the faster the workers have to move to make their cuts. If they can’t keep up, they won’t be working there for long. Over a 10-hour shift, workers have to make more than 20,000 cuts on the turkey carcasses—20,000 cuts. At that pace, it’s easy to imagine the opportunities for contamination of the meat—-the turkey you’ll be putting on your Thanksgiving table.
The workers’ experience also tells them that the speed of the production line and other risk factors, not only puts consumers at risk, but causes them to suffer acute and chronic injuries. As a 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted:
“The work is physically demanding, repetitive, and often requires working in extreme temperatures… Workers often stand for long periods of time on production lines that move very quickly, wielding knives or other cutting instruments used to trim or remove portions of the carcasses. Conditions at the plant can also be loud, wet, dark, and slippery. ….Meat and poultry workers sustain a range of injuries, including cuts, burns, and repetitive stress injuries…”
Turkey processing plant workers are asking YOU to call the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service at 202-720-9113. Tell the person answering the phone to compel meat processing companies to slow the speed of the line. USDA should do it for consumers and for the workers.
One might think that an occupational hazard like production line speed would fall under OSHA’s purview, but the agency has yet to come up with an enforcement or regulatory strategy to address health risks associated with it. Given that USDA inspectors are inside slaughterhouses and production lines everyday, the poultry processing workers must believe that they’ll make more progress trying to improve USDA rules than OSHA ones.*
The average American who buys a turkey for their Thanksgiving feast may not realize the top turkey-producing state is Minnesota, followed by North Carolina, Missouri, Arkansas, and Virginia. The big turkey processor in Minnesota is Hormel Foods’ Jennie-O. The largest vertically integrated producer in the U.S. (i.e., controlling the means production from the growers on up) is Butterball. Its plant in Mt. Olive, NC is the world’s largest turkey processing plant.
The campaign “Safe food comes from safe workers” is being supported by the Center for New Community a national organization committed to building community, justice, and equality. The intersection of food and justice has long been an issue for the Center’s Executive Director Rev. Dave Ostendorf:
In the midst of all the manifestations of the so-called “food movement” in the U.S.–organic, slow, sustainable, natural, whole, healthy, urban, sovereign–is a glaring absence of analysis of the structure of race that pervades the entire food system, from the ground to the grocer. Wherever food is produced, picked, processed, packed, or purveyed low wage workers of color predominate in the hard, dangerous, low-wage jobs that feed a nation built on cheap food, cheap labor, and rampant exploitation of food workers within a toxic framework of abiding racial structures spanning rural and urban America alike.”**
Last year, Nebraska Applesead released a report called “The Speed Kills You,” that captures the daily struggle of meatpacking plant workers. One of the most telling indictments that meat companies actually know that the line speed is ridiculously fast, is managements’ practice of slowing down the conveyor belts when outsider are inside the plant. Not long after reading this in the Nebraska Applesead’s report, I heard the same thing from workers employed in turkey production plants in Iowa:
“it’s always a better day on the line when there are visitors on site.”
They describe the childlike “procedures” the women line workers have to follow in order to use the bathroom during a workshift. Similar degrading conditions that also affect a person’s overall health were described in the NE Applesead’s report:
“…supervisors screaming, employers’ apparent indifferences to safety concerns, and a failure to treat workers as human beings. ‘They scream at you, they humiliate you.’ ‘They scream at you a lot.’ …’I know of three people who urinated and pooped in their pants and afterwards they [supervisors] just laugh at you.’”
I think the turkey plant workers believe this dose of reality will motivate consumers to support their quest for a safer work environment. Call the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service at 202-720-9113. Tell the person answering the phone to compel meat processing companies to slow the speed of the line. Do it for the workers who brought the turkey to your Thanksgiving table.
*Note: One question OSHA might have to answer if it tried to address line speed as an injury risk is: if X speed is associated with Y injury risk, at what new (lower) speed would you see a significant reduction in the risk?
**Note: Refer also the American Public Health Association’s policy “Toward a Healthy, Sustainable Food System.”