SPLC urges Alabama congressman to block USDA proposal that will endanger poultry workers, consumers

The Southern Poverty Law Center joined poultry workers, advocates and others gathered outside U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt’s district office in Gadsden, Ala., today to urge him to block new poultry industry regulations that threaten the health and safety of workers and consumers across the country.

As chairman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, Aderholt can insist on reconsideration of a rule proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that will allow poultry companies to increase processing line speeds – even though plant workers say current speeds make their work dangerous.

The proposal also threatens consumer safety by removing hundreds of federal inspectors from processing lines and burdening workers with the responsibility of removing tainted chicken from the line. Aderholt can restore the funding that will keep food safety inspectors in the plants, speakers said at the news conference. 

“The hard-working people who produce our food should be protected from these dangerous conditions,” said SPLC staff attorney Tom Fritzsche, author of the report. “Congressman Aderholt has an opportunity to ensure that the USDA doesn’t allow these corporations to profit at the expense of worker and consumer safety.”

This effort comes after the SPLC and the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice issued a report about the dangers within Alabama’s poultry industry.

The report – Unsafe at These Speeds: Alabama’s Poultry Industry and its Disposable Workers –describes how poultry workers in Alabama, the nation’s third-largest producer of poultry, often suffer significant injuries and illnesses as they are forced to keep up with the punishing speed of processing lines. Based on more than 300 interviews, it found that the workers, many whom are immigrants, are often silenced by threats of deportation and firing.

“The tens of thousands of Alabamians working in the poultry industry deserve safe, fair jobs,” said John Pickens, executive director of the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. “That means slowing down the line speeds.” 

The USDA proposal will allow poultry companies to increase line speeds from between 70 and 140 birds per minute to 175 birds per minute.

Nearly three out of four Alabama poultry workers interviewed for Unsafe at These Speeds described suffering a significant work-related injury or illness, such as debilitating pain in their hands, chemical burns or respiratory problems.  

“I worked at the plant so that I could provide for my family and never imagined the job would turn my life into a living nightmare,” said Natashia Ford, a former poultry worker. “The only time the plant would stop the line was for a bird that got stuck, never for a human who was hurt.” 

Workers in the report described being discouraged from slowing the processing line – even choosing to urinate on themselves rather than invite the wrath of a supervisor by leaving the line.

“United Food and Commercial Workers protects workers’ rights to speak up about their health and safety,” said Rick Major, secretary-treasurer of UFCW Local 1995, which represents many Alabama poultry workers. “We are especially concerned that the USDA’s rule may go into effect without implementing worker protections to make up for the faster speeds.” 

Retired food safety inspector Phyllis McKelvey, who spent 14 years checking chicken carcasses in Alabama plants, participated in a USDA pilot program where she inspected carcasses at the proposed rate of 175 chicken per minute.

“Asking inspectors to find defects like bile and feces on carcasses moving at 175 birds per minute is a nightmare waiting to happen,” she said. “At that speed, the chickens are just a blur.”

The report recommends the following:

  • The USDA should withdraw its proposed rule increasing maximum line speeds.
  • The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) should affirmatively regulate line speeds and the number of birds per minute each worker may be required to process.
  • OSHA should issue comprehensive ergonomics regulations to reduce musculoskeletal disorders arising from repetitive motion in the poultry industry.
  • Federal and state lawmakers should enact stronger anti-retaliation protections and prohibit practices that obstruct workers’ access to medical treatment.
  • Alabama should enact a Poultry Workers’ Bill of Rights to protect this workforce.