Thanksgiving a time to remember poultry worker and consumer safety

As Americans sit down to the dinner table for Thanksgiving, the turkey on their plates was most likely processed by workers enduring grueling conditions that threaten their health – conditions likely to become worse under proposed federal regulations, according to food safety and worker rights experts.

During a telephone news conference today organized by the SPLC and a coalition of other food safety and worker advocates,  speakers underscored the urgent need for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to slow down poultry and meat processing line speeds to ensure safe food and safe workplaces. The SPLC, which has examined industry practices and is dedicated to protecting the rights of its workers, is opposed to the new regulations.

“The hard-working people who produce our food should be protected from dangerous conditions that lead to avoidable injuries,” said Tom Fritzsche, an SPLC staff attorney. “The current system may be profitable for the poultry companies, but it relies on systematic exploitation of workers. Now, regulators are about to make conditions even more hazardous.”

An SPLC report – Unsafe at These Speeds: Alabama’s Poultry Industry and its Disposable Workers – describes how poultry workers in Alabama, the nation’s third-largest poultry producer, 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 of current and former Alabama poultry workers, the report found many of these workers endure grueling, dangerous working conditions and frequent threats of deportation or firing.

The USDA is currently preparing to finalize a new regulation that will increase line speeds in poultry plants. The rule also would remove government inspectors from the processing lines, allowing companies to hire their own inspectors. These faster processing speeds have been used in a pilot program.

The news conference included the National Council of La Raza, Food & Water Watch, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Northwest Arkansas Worker Justice Center (NWAWJC), a turkey processing worker and a retired USDA inspector. A slide presentation from the news conference can be viewed here.

“Expanding the pilot to all poultry plants will put consumers at risk by letting the companies self-regulate,” said Ken Ward, a retired USDA meat and poultry inspector. “USDA needs to allow government inspectors to do their jobs and protect consumers.”

Esmundo Juárez Carranza, a worker from the NWAWJC, described work in these processing plants.

“Current conditions in chicken and turkey plants make it impossible to work with dignity,” he said. “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.”