Increased line speeds means more risk to food and worker safety

NE_Appleseed_Icons_Meatpacking-128Bloomberg BusinessWeek has published a compelling piece today by Ted Genoways who examines the work and food safety issues of five U.S. pork plants that have been participating in a pilot program that increases the processing line’s work speed and reduces the number of federal inspectors, including the Hormel plant in Fremont, Nebraska.

This pilot program is identical to the USDA’s harmful proposal for poultry plants across the country, which would increase the already dangerous production line speeds to 175 birds per minute and would decrease the number of federal inspectors on processing lines to ensure that our food is free from disease and harmful food bacteria like E.coli. In their place, companies would replace those inspectors with their own employees – a set-up that creates a clear conflict of interest.

While the plants saw increased production and revenues, Genoways notes that it has come at the great expense of worker and food safety. He highlights a recent rulemaking petition that Nebraska Appleseed, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and 13 other civil rights organizations submitted to OSHA and the USDA in September of this year, asking both agencies to create a safety standard to address the crippling speed of processing lines in meat and poultry plants.

Genoways quotes one worker from the Hormel plant in Fremont, who described “‘a recent incident involving a ‘gut snatcher,’ the worker responsible for pulling innards from the abdominal cavity”’:

“One day last year, the snatcher still had one of his hands inside the carcass when a saw cut through the spine of the animal and sliced off four of his fingers. “I think he lose two of these,” the witness says, pointing to his middle and ring fingers. Then as if an afterthought, he adds that he too has lost part of a finger—the tip of his left pinkie—to a rib cutter. And his wife also lost her index finger, severed by a fat trimmer. In every case, he says, “they washed it up but never stopped production.’”

These pilot programs also jeopardized food safety. Out of the 616 pork plants in the country, the USDA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) found that three of the plants participating in the pilot program ranked among the top 10 violators of food safety requirements between 2008 and 2011.

This article adds more evidence to the fact that the poultry rule will only worsen the already unsafe conditions for workers and food in our meat and poultry plants.  Increasing line speeds raises the risk of serious and crippling repetitive motion injuries for poultry workers and puts the safety of our food in jeopardy. Genoways was able to conclude that one of the plants in the OIG report was a Hormel plant in Fremont which was the struck with an alarming 607 food safety violations in between 2008 and 2011; if the USDA’s proposed poultry rule is finalized, there is a real risk that poultry plants across the country would have similar problems.

Safe food comes from a safe workplace, and we all want a strong and sustainable meat and poultry industry that places the highest emphasis on keeping our food free from disease and providing a safe, dignified workplace for workers.

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