Will Tom Vilsack’s USDA keep its promise to poultry plant workers about their grueling, disabling work?

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack seems determined to implement a new poultry slaughter inspection system, despite strong calls from the food safety and public health communities for him to withdraw it.   At an April 17 congressional hearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittees on Agriculture, Rural Development, FDA and Related Agencies, Vilsack indicated that the new regulation would be completed soon, according to Congressional Quarterly.

Opponents say the proposal will do little to improve food safety, at the same time reducing USDA’s ranks of poultry inspectors and shifting their food-safety inspection duties to the poultry producers.  Without those pesky government inspectors examining the poultry carcasses, the companies will be allowed to increase production line speeds up to 175 birds per minute.   Congressional Quarterly reports that Vilsack acknowledged that concerns have been raised about worker safety issues related to the program and said “we intend to address those concerns.”

Similarly, the  Gadsden (AL) Times, reports that USDA’s under secretary for food safety, Dr. Elisabeth Hagen says they have consulted with the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration to ensure the rule “doesn’t have unintended consequences.”   Hagen said she would “never put forward a rule that I thought would increase risk or reduce protections for anybody,” the paper reported.

Short of scrapping the provision to increase the line speeds—the giant carrot in the regulation promised to poultry producers—-I’m curious to learn how USDA officials will address the adverse consequences for poultry workers if the new inspection system is put in place.   Is it wise for me to take Secretary Vilsack at his word that they’ll address the worker safety concerns?

As we’ve written before (here) as have others (here, here, here) the production process in many of these plants is already grueling for workers on line.  USDA’s proposal will simply make matters worse.  The disturbing reality came to light in new report “Unsafe at these speeds: Alabama’s poultry industry and its disposable workers,” released by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Alabama Appleseed. It’s based on interviews with 302 workers currently or previously employed in Alabama’s poultry industry, including the familiar companies named Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s Pride, Wayne Farms, Koch Foods, AlaTrade Foods, Cagle’s and Equity Group.  There are about 25 major poultry processing plants in Alabama, and the survey participants worked in 20 different plants.   Here’s some of what you’ll read in the report:

“The processing line that whisks birds through the plant moves at a punishing speed. Over three-quarters of workers said that the speed makes their work more dangerous. It is a pre-dominant factor in the most common type of injuries, called musculoskeletal disorders. But if the line seems to move at a pace designed for machines rather than people, it should come as no surprise. Plant workers, many whom are immigrants, are often treated as disposable resources by their employers. Threats of deportation and firing are frequently used to keep them silent.”

And,

“Nearly three-quarters of the poultry workers interviewed for this report described suffering some type of significant work-related injury or illness.  …Poultry workers often endure debilitating pain in their hands, gnarled fingers, chemical burns, and respiratory problems – tell-tale signs of repetitive motion injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, and other ailments that flourish in these plants.”

And,

“It’s a world where employees are fired for work-related injuries or even for seeking medical treatment from someone other than the company nurse or doctor. In this report, they describe being discouraged from reporting work-related injuries, enduring constant pain and even choosing to urinate on themselves rather than invite the wrath of a supervisor by leaving the processing line for a restroom break.”

And,

“Workers would process 30,000 to 60,000 birds per shift as they raced to keep pace with the mechanized line. If a chicken became lodged in the machinery, the line would stop so it could be dislodged.  Hurt workers couldn’t count on the same mercy.  The processing line never slowed or stopped for them.”

Although this report’s focus is Alabama workers, I have no reason to believe that their situation is much different than poultry plant workers in other States.  Their experiences, in fact, are strikingly similar to what we read in the Charlotte (NC) Observer’s 2008 series The Cruelest Cuts about workers in North Carolina’s poultry industry.

I hope that Alabama Appleseed and the Southern Poverty Law Center sent a personal copy to Secretary Vilsack and his under secretary for food safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen.  The voices of poultry workers comes through loud and clear to explain how the speed of the production line can gravely affect their health.

It doesn’t take more than a moment of thought to realize how the USDA’s proposal to change the poultry inspection system will make matters worse.  Much worse.

 

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