New rule may make poultry processing work and food less safe

The US Department of Agriculture is proposing a new poultry inspection rule, which reduces the number of USDA inspectors at poultry processing plants and allows companies to play a bigger role in the inspection process. It also increases the maximum speed of production lines by 21 percent. The USDA says that the proposed rule will streamline poultry processing and maintain high food safety standards.

Union and consumer advocates aren’t so sure. Eco Centric, a food, water, and energy blog, said that  past experience shows that it’s not a good idea to allow food processing companies to police themselves. The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents USDA inspectors, said that the new rule “places emphasis on quantity and quickness over quality.”

Joe Hansen, president of United Food and Commercial Workers, said that the worst thing about the new rule is that it is being considered without any study or concern about its impact on worker safety.

And make no mistake about it, poultry processing plants are dangerous places to work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the poultry processing industry has the eighth highest rate of on-the-job non-fatal injuries among all industries in the US.

The poultry processing injury rate is three times higher than the national rate and higher than such industries as iron foundries, light truck manufacturing, and aluminum die-casting foundries.

The speed of the production line and the precise, rapid, and repetitive cuts that workers make as chicken carcasses and parts race past them at a rate of one to 2.3 per second are major factors making the work so unsafe.

The Charlotte Observer in 2008 ran a six-part series on the dangers of working in a poultry plant entitled, The Cruelest Cuts. The pictures of mangled hands and fingers of poultry processing workers is the series’ most compelling evidence of the damage done by the speeding production lines.

One of the most common injuries incurred on a poultry processing line is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. A recent study conducted by Wake Forest University health professionals in North Carolina compared 287 poultry workers with a similar number of non-poultry workers in western North Carolina. The poultry workers, mostly Latino immigrants, had higher rates of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome than non-poultry workers. Furthermore, 59 percent showed definite or likely signs of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.

The current rule sets the maximum speed at which a line can run at 140 young chickens per minute. The proposed new rule raises the maximum to 175 per minute. Alfred Almanza of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service says that based on a 13-year pilot study, the higher production line speed won’t affect product safety. (He doesn’t say anything about its impact on worker safety.)

But inspectors who are stationed at poultry processing plants are less sanguine. They are also concerned because the new rule eliminates over the course of time about 1,000 inspector positions. What that means is that fewer independent inspectors will be inspecting poultry moving past them at higher rates of speed.

As one inspector who posted an online petition urging the USDA to reconsider the rule said, inspectors are currently only required to inspect 35 birds a minute. If the line speed increases to 175 birds per minute that’s going to mean many more birds going uninspected.

Another problem is that the new rule allows company inspectors to conduct the initial examination of the fowl, which, currently, is done by USDA inspectors. These company employees will lack  independence making them far less likely to shut down production if they spot an unsafe bird.

“Inspectors need to be impartial – and not be concerned about company profits,” said Stan Painter, chairman of the AFGE National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals. “They need to be independent – and not be employed by the company, and they need to be looking out for the consumer – and not be looking out for the company.”

Painter also noted that proper inspection takes a lot of training and experience, but turnover at poultry processing plants is notoriously high. The new proposed rule does not include language requiring experienced workers, Painter said. “People will walk in off the streets, and they will put them in this position with no training.”

USDA is still considering comments on the proposed rule, but the deadline is April 26. You can comment online at  http://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=FSIS-2011-0012-0001.

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