How will USDA respond to environmental justice concerns for poultry plant workers?

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, herehere, 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.



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This post definitely hits close to home. The workers in my hometown in WV solely rely on their jobs at the poultry plant. Even when conditions are horrible they are still willing to work because they need that income. I never realized how speeding up the work line could be more harmful to their health. It is interesting to see what the USDA will decide to do and how people will react on the situation. I don't agree that they should go fourth with this ordeal considering it poses threat to workers.

By Samantha Thompson (not verified) on 12 Feb 2013 #permalink

This post quickly brings to my mind a quote by Jimi Hendrix, "When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace." Money is power and love is justice. This proposal to speed up production has nothing to do with anything but money. The more production-the more profit. This is all th USDA sees. The people who work in the factories are less than an after thought and the only reason why the USDA is even mentioning anything about the workers is because it has been made public how bad the conditions are, and the USDA wants to seem as though that actually matters to them; because humainly it absolutely should. They do not care about the workers, they just don't want the negetive publicity and will follow through on their proposal if they can keep that to a minimal. The USDA is just one part of this world that creates injustice to human life and why our world will never see a moment of peace. These poor people work in terrible environments as it is, and the fact they there is the potential for them to bew put in an even worse condition, that is an evil consideration and many head advisors of the USDA should be forced to work there even for a week before they make any sort of decision that effects other humans.

By Yvonne McKay (not verified) on 12 Feb 2013 #permalink