Thanksgiving turkey gets Presidential pardon – Turkey workers, however, can’t get a break

As Americans prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday and the White House gets ready for President Obama to pardon the National Thanksgiving Turkey in a Rose Garden ceremony on Wednesday November 27 that will “reflect upon the time-honored traditions of Thanksgiving,” let us take a moment to reflect upon the welfare of the men and women who process the millions of turkeys on their way to Thanksgiving dinners.

First, according to the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), about 220,000 people currently work in the poultry processing industry in the US, at an annual median wage of about $25,000 a year, with half earning between $8.76 and $11.70 an hour. In the top ten turkey-producing states, most of those employed in meat slaughtering and producing earn between $22,660 and $23,870 annually. Most poultry processing plant workers are from ethnic minorities; many are also recent immigrants and women. Only about 30 percent of these workers are represented by unions. The workers who handle birds after they’re slaughtered typically handle about 30 or more turkeys a minute during shifts that run eight to nine hours. The birds can weigh more than 16 pounds each. (Imagine moving a cold 16-pound slippery dead turkey every two seconds between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.) The work also involves heavy machinery, sharp cutting equipment and disinfection chemicals. So this work is not only low-paying, but hard and often hazardous.

The meat industry says injury rates in poultry processing are at an all-time low and below that for the entire food manufacturing sector. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), however, “Since 1975, workers in this industry have consistently suffered injuries and illnesses at a rate more than twice the national average.” Repetitive motion injuries, muscoskeletal disorders, and joint pain are common throughout the poultry-processing industry. OSHA inspection records also record machine injuries and cuts to fingers – including amputations. A recent National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) investigation has also found poultry processing line speeds resulting in high incidence of muscoskeletal and other injuries.

Last Thursday – a week before this year’s Thanksgiving celebration – I spoke to Esmundo Juárez Carranza, who had worked in a turkey processing plant in Arkansas for seven years. He worked there until this September, when he was fired after leaving his work station to take a bathroom break. His job was to hang plucked turkeys (that had had their feet cut off) by the head as they came off a belt and before they went to the next point in processing. For many years, he said, there were three workers on this line. Two people would work hanging turkeys while the third would pick up the turkeys that had fallen off the line, clean them (including of any feces) and put them back on the line. With three people they were able to spell each other on these tasks, said Carranza. But recently, he said, the company reduced staff so there were only two people on his line. This meant more turkeys falling on the floor with no one to pick them up, he said. It also meant it became harder to take a toilet break. The lack of bathroom breaks was a problem for many workers, some of whom developed kidney stones, he said.

On the typical night shift that Carranza worked, each person would handle about 15,000 turkeys each, so that the two-person line processed about 30,000 turkeys a shift. “Sometimes they’d speed up the line really fast,” he said. “After they cut staff, the station was much dirtier and there was more pressure to get the work done,” he explained.

For this work, which he did five or six days a week, Carranza was paid $10.95 an hour. “There was never a set time for a shift to end,” he said. “We stayed until all the turkeys were processed.” He always had pain in his arms and hands, he said. Carranza said his unemployment claim was denied and that he’s been unable to find a new job so he’s been living on his small amount of savings that is starting to run out.

Carranza is but one of thousands of workers, but his experience, says Tom Fritzsche, staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Immigrant Justice Program, mirrors what SPLC has documented previously in its surveys of poultry workers. Fritzsche explained that in addition to being disciplined for taking bathroom breaks, workers have told of being threatened with firing for using the emergency stop buttons when they needed to halt work on their processing lines.

Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist with Food & Water Watch, a DC-based non-profit, concurred that lack of bathroom breaks is a problem endemic in poultry processing. The fact that a great many poultry processing plants are not unionized exacerbates such difficulties in workers’ schedules, he said. Another industry workday issue is that of guaranteed compensation for jobsite time spent changing into and out of required protective clothing These are the kinds of basic rights that it can be hard to assure without union representation.

Proposed changes prompt warnings

The pace of work in turkey and other poultry plants is a pressing issue, as has been reported previously by The Pump Handle. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has proposed a rule that would allow for increased processing line speeds and fewer USDA inspectors. Speaking to reporters on November 21, Ken Ward, a retired USDA poultry inspector with 30 years of experience said the USDA’s proposal would effectively turn over professional government inspections to private company employees with no formal training. What USDA is proposing, said Ward, would remove “highly trained USDA inspectors on slighter lines who inspect each and every turkey” and turn over “bird by bird inspection to company employees who are called sorters.” According to Corbo, USDA’s proposal would eliminate about 800 USDA inspectors.

“Current conditions in chicken and turkey plants make it impossible to work with dignity,” said Carranza. “If they increase the line speed even more, the workers won’t be able to do their jobs as well. There will be more contamination in the product, and the companies will blame the workers,” he explained.

The National Turkey Federation (NTF) supports the USDA proposal. In a statement this spring, the NTF president Joel Brandenberger called the proposed rule “a modern, sensible approach that will allow food safety inspectors to focus on the public health” and redeploy its resources in a manner that better protects the public from foodborne diseases and makes our food supply even safer.” NTF says data from a pilot program suggests that “no increase in worker injuries [are] expected under the new system.” Additionally, NTF said that while “improving food safety is the primary concern, the proposed rule fosters the hiring of additional in-plant personnel in many regions.” A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, however, has since questioned the validity of the data the poultry industry has used to support the safety of the USDA proposal.

Butterball, the nation’s largest turkey producer according to industry statistics, declined via its public relations firm to make anyone available for an interview, as did Foster Farms, another of the top ten US turkey producers – all of which are NTF members. Perdue spokesperson Joe Forsthoffer said his company did not have a specific position on the USDA’s proposed rule. Perdue, he explained, thinks the “important thing is that the inspection process continues to reinforce public trust in the American food system.”

Included among USDA’s answers to my questions about turkey processing was a reference to a recent blog post by the National Chicken Council vice president for communications, who suggested “it’s as safe” to work “the omelet station at the country club champagne brunch as it is to work in a poultry processing plant.” This piece, wrote the USDA spokesperson “has a nice holiday touch.” Perhaps a nicer “holiday touch” would be to have the nation’s turkey producers – and the federal government – truly enable the men and women who labor to bring poultry to market to work in safety, health and dignity.

 Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green ChemistryHigh Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives,, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation. 

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