Fast and the Furious: Poultry Proposal Puts Workers at Risk

New industry self-regulation means production lines will likely speed up—with fewer officials looking out for safety.
At poultry production facilities, employees work long days doing repetitive and sometimes risky tasks. (Mike Stewart, Getty Images)
Apr 23, 2012
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

Think you could hang 60 chickens on hooks in 60 seconds? No, this isn't the latest food stunt fad. It's the reality of a day in a poultry processing plant, where employees must work at breakneck speeds to process chickens in assembly lines. If a new law proposed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) passes, that number could leap—a change that workers fear will put them at risk and consumer advocates worry will compromise food safety.

ln an effort to improve food inspections in the poultry industry, the USDA and the White House have proposed new poultry inspection rules that, among other things, would permit plants to kick processing lines to higher speeds and remove nearly 1,000 government inspectors from plants. If passed, the law would phase out 800 to 1,000 Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) employees, pulling inspectors from production lines—where they look for damaged or bruised chickens—and putting them in charge of focusing on bacteria and other risks. Physical inspections would fall largely onto plant employees.

While the changes would increase scrutiny of invisible threats like bacteria, they could introduce an additional problem: fewer people on the inspection line means greater responsibility for each production line worker. The proposed rules, meant to overhaul antiquated food safety practices, could impact the safety of workers by putting increased pressure on them to keep up with already-challenging physical tasks. That's what has the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCWU) up in arms about the new proposal. 

The Huffington Post explains

The problem for workers, advocates say, is that the presence of human inspectors serves as the primary governor of line speed in plants. With USDA inspectors out of the picture, the proposed rule would allow some plants to move from a maximum of 70 to 140 birds per minute to a maximum of 175, a potential boon to the efficiency-minded poultry industry.

"We think it's a bad idea," Tom Fritzsche, a staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told the Huffington Post. "The most common complaint workers have is that the lines as they go right now are already too fast."

In addition to keeping up with a demanding pace on the inspection line, inspection workers perform repetitive motions day after day with little relief, causing them work-related injuries and discomfort.

While groups like the National Chicken Council (NCC) defend the new standards, saying the changes would modernize the industry, consumer advocacy groups and even federal inspectors have questioned whether they would truly improve food safety. Poultry companies stand to save more than $250 million a year if the new plan passes, but oversight on the front lines of inspection will fall to the same company that is trying to sell the chicken.

Advocacy groups don't trust poultry companies to self-regulate, and contend that if lines move at a rate of 175 birds per minute as expected, it will be impossible to spot contaminants, tumors, and other diseases on birds. The NCC balks at doubters, saying that although plant workers will take on more responsbility in inspecting bird carcasses, USDA inspectors will still be present in the factories.

Still, employee safety hangs in the balance. Fewer USDA inspectors on plant floors will likely put plant workers at greater risk, because they will have little or no line of defense when companies pressure them to keep pace.

Mark Lauritsen, head of the union's food packaging and processing division, says the new rules are more of the same unethical behavior the poultry industry has shown before.

"I think it's about squeezing more production out of overworked workers. "This is the poultry industry's rule," Lauritsen told Huffington Post. "They squeeze every ounce of profit out of workers, and they notoriously underreport injuries."

What's your take? Do you think it's a good idea for the poultry industry to self-regulate?

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