New USDA Regulations Endanger Workers, Consumers

The new employees hired at a North Alabama poultry plant didn’t last long.

Their first day on the job was often their last day on the job. Some didn’t last more than an hour.

The reason was almost always the same – the relentless speed of the processing line.

“[I]t was too fast to keep up with,” said Jorge, a plant worker. “Every week they had to hire new workers.”

Jorge worked at a poultry plant that was part of a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) pilot program to test a new poultry inspection system that permits increases in the speed of the processing line. The agency’s proposed new regulations would allow some plants to raise the line speed to a maximum of 175 birds per minute – from the current maximum range of 70 to 140 per minute.

It is unbelievable to Jorge that the USDA – the only agency that has a strict, enforceable limit on line speed – would raise it. Workers across the industry already cite the fast speed of the line as the cause of carpal tunnel syndrome and other musculoskeletal disorders. Jorge, like other poultry workers, suffers from virtually constant hand, wrist and arm pain that makes it difficult for him to sleep at night.

There’s also little reason for Jorge or other poultry workers to believe that factory managers will compensate for a faster line speed by hiring additional workers. Many plants already have workers hanging, cutting and deboning chickens nearly shoulder-to-shoulder on the line. There’s simply not enough space for additional workers to reduce the burden of the faster speeds.

Consumers at risk 

The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) proposed the regulation known as “Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection” on Jan. 27, 2012, to allow plants to slaughter birds more “efficiently.” Though the regulation hasn’t taken effect yet, concerns raised by workers have fallen largely on deaf ears.

But this regulation is more than an issue for workers. It poses risks for consumers. Fast processing lines often send chicken carcasses crashing to the floor, as workers can attest.

 “We’d have a pile [of chickens] as high as a car by the end of the night,” one worker told survey interviewers. “The chicken gets thrown all over the floor if you fall behind,” another said.

But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this regulation for consumers is the removal of many USDA inspectors from processing lines. Under the proposed regulation, workers will have the responsibility of spotting and removing diseased and tainted chicken from the line.

Burdening workers with this new duty as they race against the faster line speed hampers the chances of finding feces, blisters and other impurities on the carcasses. This has already started happening at plants operating under this proposed regulation as part of the pilot project. Food and Water Watch’s analysis of records from these plants found that “large numbers of defects – including feathers, bile and feces – were routinely missed when company employees instead of USDA inspectors performed inspection tasks.”

One inspector’s affidavit released by the Government Accountability Project, a nonpartisan advocacy organization, stated that it “is difficult, if not impossible to spot defects at that rate.”

A former federal inspector in North Alabama crunched the numbers to show the daunting reality facing the lone USDA inspector working the processing line under the new regulatory regime.

“The lines are so fast, one-third of a second per bird,” said Phyllis McKelvey, who retired in 2010. “You tell me you can thoroughly inspect that bird for disease and contaminants in one-third of a second.”

Another inspector noted that under the proposal, USDA inspectors will “only see the backside of the bird during carcass inspection. As a result, we are unable to see breast blisters, which form because the birds lay on their front, or to spot other harmful defects. For example, fecal matter can appear anywhere on the bird, including the front of the bird, or under the wings, which are folded up.”

USDA inspectors also have noted “that companies routinely pressure their employees not to stop the line or slow it down, making thorough inspection for contaminants, tumors and evidence of disease nearly impossible.” In an industry where a worker fears he may lose his job for stopping the line – even choosing to urinate on himself rather than risk angering a supervisor by requesting a bathroom break – it is a legitimate question to ask how these workers will summon the courage to slow the processing line to ensure only healthy, clean birds are shipped to the nation’s supermarkets.

USDA urged to withdraw rules 

Shortly after the rule was proposed, the Southern Poverty Law Center joined numerous advocates, including Nebraska Appleseed, in submitting comments to urge the USDA to withdraw the proposed rule because of the danger it poses to the health and safety of thousands of poultry workers throughout the United States.

Poultry processing workers need and deserve more protections, not fewer. The proposed rule ignores what is already a serious problem for this workforce – the danger of the current line speed. Poultry workers should not be subjected to dangerous workplaces and disabling injuries in order to increase the profits of a few large corporations.

FSIS claims that it recognizes the importance of worker safety, even saying that “evaluation of the effects of line speed on food safety should include the effects of line speed on establishment employee safety.” This is encouraging, but it makes the USDA’s support for this rule all the more inexplicable.


          
Jorge also gave an interview to the Huffington Post about this rule. Dave Jamieson, USDA Poultry Plant Proposal Could Allow Plants To Speed Up Processing Lines, Stirring Concern for Workers, The Huffington Post (Apr. 19, 2012) available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/19/usda-poultry-inspections-worker....

          
USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP), List of Participating Plants, May 25, 2012, available at http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Science/Himp_Plant_List/index.asp. Not all of these plants are necessarily operating at the new maximum line speed yet.

          
Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection, 77 Fed. Reg. 4,407, 4,454 (Jan. 27, 2012) (to be codified at 9 C.F.R. pts. 381, 500).

          
See, e.g., U.S. Government Accountability Office, Workplace Safety and Health: Safety in the Meat and Poultry Industry, GAO-05-96 at 32 (January 12, 2005), available at http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-05-96.

          
Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection, 77 Fed. Reg. at 4,407–56, supra note 3. 

          
Wenonah Hauter, Obama Administration Backwards On Food Safety, The Huffington Post (Sept. 14, 2012) available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/wenonah-hauter/obama-backward-food-safety_... see also Food & Water Watch, Privatized Poultry Inspection: USDA’s Pilot Project Results, http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/food/foodsafety/privatized-poultry-insp....

          
Helena Bottemiller, Debate Heats up over Poultry Inspection Proposal, Food Safety News, http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2012/04/debate-heats-up-over-new-poultry-i... (Apr. 9, 2012).

          
Federal inspectors in Alabama wary of proposed changes in poultry slaughter operations, The Associated Press, http://blog.al.com/wire/2012/12/feds_consider_poultry_slaughte.html#inca... (Dec. 4, 2012).

 Bottemiller, supra note 7.

 Jim Avila, USDA to Let Industry Self-Inspect Chicken, ABC News, http://abcnews.go.com/news/t/blogEntry?id=16165211 (April 19, 2012). 

 There were a total of 2260 comments submitted on the rule, as found at regulations.gov as of February 14, 2013, available at http://www.regulations.gov/#!searchResults;rpp=25;po=0;s=FSIS-2011-0012.

 Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection, 77 Fed. Reg. 24,873, 24,877 (Apr. 26, 2012) (to be codified at 9 C.F.R. pts. 381, 500).

 Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection, 77 Fed. Reg. at 4,423, supra note 3.