Our local grocery store chain, H.E.B., sells packaged poultry under the private label “Natural Chicken.” It’s meant to appeal to customers who want to know that the chicken they intend to eat was treated more humanely than your typical chicken. The package label on H.E.B.’s Natural Chicken says:
- No cages ever!! Unlimited access to feed, water, and freedom of movement
- No additives or preservatives
- Always vegetarian fed
- No added growth stimulants or hormones
- No antibiotics
- Raised cage free
I stood in the refrigerator aisle and stared at the package for a while. I thought about the label and treating chickens well. But what about the workers who processed the chickens? What symbol could be on the label to signify that the workers had unlimited access to restrooms, just like the chickens had "unlimited access to feed and water"?
What could the label say to indicate that the plant's working conditions were designed toward freedom from repetitive movement disorders for the workers? The chickens were afforded "freedom of movement."
We’ve written many times here about the harsh working conditions for meatpacking and poultry workers. Employees at most of these plants can’t keep up with the fast pace of the production lines. The owner of one firm told an NPR reporter recently:
"We hire 100 people a week because we have 100 people who quit every week. We're constantly short."
Current and former workers testified in March 2014 before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and describe what it is like to be employed in the poultry and meatpacking industry. As Liz Borkowski, MPH reported, workers suffer from crippling injuries in their hands, arms and shoulders. Some are in constant pain, but when they complain about their work-related injuries, they are ignored or fired, or they quit. I've got to believe that someone who wants to know that the chicken they're about to eat was humanely treated would want to know the same thing about the poultry plant workers.
Lizzie Grossman wrote here last year about the Equitable Food Initiative (EFI) and its goal
“to ensure not only the safety of food itself but also the health, safety and respect of farm workers and their families."
EFI focuses on production of fruits and vegetables, but might it serve as a model for other forms of food production? Among its more than 100 performance standards for food safety, environmental and labor stewardship, I see many that could be adapted for poultry and meat production. There are general requirements for appropriate safety training and personal protective equipment, but there are other indicators that go beyond mere compliance with OSHA standards. I think this one would be particularly appealing to poultry and meatpacking workers:
The Leadership Team evaluates each job, process, or operation of identical work activity covered by this section or a representative number of such jobs, processes, or operations of identical work activities involved at the farm and develops a Repetitive Motion Injury (RMI) Elimination Plan.
For any repetitive motions that are deemed to cause RMIs, the Leadership Team develops a work plan to correct the RMI exposure, or, if the exposure cannot be corrected in a timely manner, the exposure is minimized to the extent feasible. The Leadership Team recommends engineering controls, such as work station redesign, adjustable fixtures or tool redesign, and administrative controls, such as job rotation, work pacing or work breaks to minimize the risk of RMIs.
EFI has been pilot testing its standards at two California strawberry farms. It will be revising the standards and developing a certification system which would allow farms that comply with EFI's standards to display a EFI logo (trust mark) on their products. I know that ramping up such a program will take time, and moving beyond strawberries to other produce will create some hiccups. But I'm holding out hope that the demand for good food by institutions and individual consumers will move beyond produce in the years ahead to meat and poultry processing.
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We're pretty sure that the workers who process the chickens we buy from Lynn or Bill or the Beiler family are treated well. Regulations make it tough to sell animals that have been slaughtered on the farm but over in the next county there's a custom poultry processing facility which is family owned and operated and has been for at least 25 years. We can't always get our birds from those 3 sources but we try to plan ahead so that there's always something in the freezer.
As Ben says, "You may still get sick from food you buy locally but at least you know whose porch light to shoot out."