Moderated by Rick Badie
The USDA wants to reduce the number of chicken plant inspectors and increase line speeds that process and inspect carcasses to 175 birds per minute from 140. Critics, including two of today’s guest columnists, have cried foul with concerns about poultry worker safety and consumers of chicken products. A Georgia poultry executive defends the modernization of processing lines in an industry that contributes $18.4 billion a year to the state economy.
Poultry workers and consumers will remain protected
By Mike Giles
The poultry inspection system was developed in the 1950s, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been exploring the modernization of the system for the past two decades. A pilot program running in 20 chicken plants since 1999 has been studied, debated and reviewed thoroughly to determine the most effective way to modernize the nation’s poultry inspection system.
Whether chicken plants operate under traditional inspection or choose to participate in this voluntary, modernized inspection system, the result is the same for consumers. Rigorous food safety standards will be applied to all chicken products under either inspection method. Chicken products inspected under either method must meet or exceed the safety standards established by the USDA before reaching consumers.
Under the proposal and in the pilot program, the USDA retains its regulatory role over plants that produce chicken products. USDA inspectors will still be in every plant, looking at each bird to ensure the safety and wholesomeness of chicken products sold to consumers.
The proportion of USDA inspectors doing critical food safety-related tasks will actually increase under the modernized inspection system. This is because some USDA inspectors will be repositioned from evisceration lines, where they currently perform visual quality-control tasks such as looking for bumps or broken wings, to performing other testing and verification activities that are more effective in detecting unseen threats like salmonella and campylobacter.
Visual inspection is only one of several scientifically validated measures to improve food safety at dozens of different points in the during the entireproduction process. While visual inspection will remain a vital part of the inspection process, it will be coupled with additional pathogen-detection capabilities to ensure a safe and wholesome chicken product. USDA data clearly show that food safety records in the plants participating in the pilot project are equal to or better than plants operating under traditional inspection.
Some critics of the proposed rule contend that increasing line speeds from 140 birds per minute to 175 birds per minute, as the rule would allow, will increase harm to plant workers. There is no evidence in the pilot program over the past 14 years to substantiate the assertion that increased line speeds will increase injuries.
A recent survey found plants operating at 175 birds per minute as part of the USDA pilot program are as safe for workers as traditional plants. Recordable injury rates in pilot plants were 5.6 per 100 workers in 2009 and 5.3 in 2010, compared to an overall industry average of 6.1 per 100 workers in 2009 and 5.5 in 2010.
In fact, the safety record in all poultry plants has improved dramatically over the past two decades. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show the poultry industry’s worker injury and illness rates have decreased 74 percent since 1994.
It is the goal and primary focus of chicken producers to protect our workers and to provide consumers with safe, high-quality and wholesome chicken. This goal can continue to be reached under the traditional inspection system or the proposed modernized one.
Mike Giles is president of the Georgia Poultry Federation.
Faster line speeds endanger poultry workers and consumers
By Wenonah Hauter
Since 1998, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been trying out a pilot program that shifts the responsibility for the safety and quality of poultry to poultry companies instead of its inspectors. Now the USDA wants to expand this pilot program to the entire poultry industry and let company employees do the job currently done by 800 federal inspectors.
The USDA is promoting this change as an opportunity to modernize the inspection program. But what it boils down to is an attempt to cut USDA’s workforce by putting the health and safety of consumers and workers at risk.
In poultry slaughter facilities operating under conventional inspection, each USDA inspector assigned to the slaughter line is responsible for evaluating carcasses for food safety and wholesomeness defects. Each USDA inspector is expected to evaluate up to 35 birds per minute and there could be as many as four inspectors assigned to each slaughter line. In plants participating in the pilot program, only one USDA inspector is assigned to each slaughter line. Company employees check carcasses to see if they meet food safety and wholesomeness regulatory standards.
When we analyzed USDA records from 14 poultry plants participating in the pilot program in 2011, Food & Water Watch found that company employees frequently missed food safety and wholesomeness defects, including bits of beak, feathers, lungs, oil glands, bile and even fecal matter left on carcasses. One turkey slaughter plant had defect rates as high as 99 percent.
In addition to cutting USDA inspectors out of the process, this proposal would allow line speeds in poultry slaughter plants to increase to 175 birds per minute, making it nearly impossible to spot defects on the carcasses and putting worker safety at risk. The USDA readily admits that the poultry industry will stand to earn an additional $260 million per year by removing the cap on line speeds, and tries to explain away the risk of contamination by promoting the use of a chemical cocktail at the end of the slaughter process. Companies are allowed to use chlorine, tri-sodium phosphate (used to clean cement) and hypobromous acid (used to clean swimming pools) to treat poultry for salmonella and to sterilize feces that might still be on carcasses.
The proposed rule puts company employees in the role of protecting consumer safety, but does not require them to receive any training or prove proficiency in performing duties normally performed by government inspectors who are required to take training before they are assigned to the slaughter line.
Lack of training is not the only impact this rule will have on workers. Increasing line speeds will have a negative impact on worker safety. While the proposed rule does mention a study to be conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health to determine whether increased line speeds have adverse effects on worker health and safety, the USDA is not waiting for that study to be completed before proceeding.
The meat and poultry industry has successfully fought attempts by the USDA to enforce policies that would reduce or eliminate food-borne pathogens, such as salmonella and campylobacter, in poultry. The USDA needs to seek that authority from Congress and not deregulate poultry inspection.
Wenonah Hauter is the executive director of the consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch.
Safe chicken begins with safe workers
By Janet Murguía
America loves chicken. We eat more poultry than any other type of meat or fish—about 43 billion pounds of it every year. But in this age of “pink slime,” deadly outbreaks of food-borne illnesses have many consumers on edge about what’s in their meat and how it got there.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which regulates the poultry industry, would like you to think that the chicken you eat will soon be safer than ever. If USDA has its way, it will “modernize” the government’s poultry inspection process by laying off more than 800 federal food safety inspectors nationwide and allowing poultry plants to increase their production line speeds from a current maximum of 140 birds per minute to 175 birds per minute. Forgive me if I find it incomprehensible — and a bit Orwellian — that removing food inspectors from plants and subjecting workers to dizzying line speeds translates to “modernization.”
Indeed, many public health experts are skeptical of the scientific analysis underlying USDA’s proposal, but you don’t need to be an expert to understand that speeding up poultry processing lines would be worse for food safety. Just ask any of the 36,000 poultry workers employed here in Georgia. They will tell you that even at current line speeds, poultry workers are at their physical limit. Most workers spend their entire shift just repeating a single task, such as slaughtering, sorting, cleaning, inspecting, trimming, cutting, or packaging chickens, usually while standing up.
As a result, these workers are experiencing conditions which cripples the hands, wrists, and arms such as carpal tunnel syndrome at already alarming rates. Increase the line speed to 175 birds per minute and conditions will quickly deteriorate. According to Jorge, a poultry worker we spoke with in Alabama: “Many times I had to dislodge chickens and rehang them when they would get stuck on conveyer belts and pile up on the tables.” And that’s at current line speeds. This is a far cry from an environment where chicken can be processed safely.
It is also clear that a faster line speed would put workers at even greater risk of injury as they struggle to keep up. Add to the equation the fact that 34 percent of poultry workers are Latino, many facing language barriers and intense pressure to not lose their jobs, and it becomes likely that most of these problems will go unreported. That is dangerous for workers and consumers alike.
There is still time for the Obama administration to reconsider USDA’s proposed changes to the poultry inspection process. Until USDA can work with other government agencies to develop a plan to ensure that the workers who prepare poultry for consumption are safe, we cannot be confident that the chicken on our plate is safe either.
Janet Murguía is president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza.