It’s one thing to say your agency is committed to environmental justice, but actions speak louder than words. That’s why I’m eager to see how USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and his Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) respond to the environmental justice concerns raised about the agency’s proposed regulation to “modernize the poultry slaughter inspection system” (77 Fed Reg 4408.)
A disproportionate share of workers employed in poultry slaughter and production are Latinos and women. Many earn poverty-level wages. Their work environment—-which is already associated with adverse health conditions (e.g., here, here, here, here)—will be further negatively affected if the USDA’s proposal is adopted to increase assembly line speeds from 140 birds to 175 birds per minute. (We’ve written before about this proposal (e.g., here, here, here, here) and its consequences for workers’ health.)
This USDA proposed rule is the type of action that should have been scrutinized by USDA for environmental justice concerns. That’s because in late 2010, the Obama White House directed all federal agencies to examine how their work may have disproportionally adverse effects on low-income and minority populations. The directive was meant to reinvigorate environmental justice activities pursuant to a 1994 Executive Order (EO 12898.)
USDA Secretary Vilsack signed in 2011 a memorandum of understanding, agreeing to make environmental justice part of his Department’s mission. He later released an environmental justice strategic plan in which Goal #4 reads:
“Ensure USDA’s activities do not have disproportionately high and adverse human health impacts, and resolve environmental justice issues and complaints.”
Based on current conditions in these plants, the prevalence of musculoskeletal disorders among poultry workers is already high. The conclusions of the best epidemiologists who have studied this population of workers is that the line speed should be SLOWED to protect their health, not sped up as the USDA proposes. The workforce affected by this rule is comprised largely of women, immigrants, and other vulnerable workers. These poultry plants are their environment. I’m eager to see if Secretary Vilsack will make good on his promised commitment to environmental justice.
P.S. As part of the USDA’s EJ strategic plan, Secretary Vilsack “directed each USDA agency to designate a point of contact on environmental justice at the Senior Executive Service (SES) level.” On Feb 1, 2013, I requested from USDA’s public affairs office the name of the SES-level environmental justice chief at FSIS. I’m still waiting to receive the answer.