July 16, 2014
Contact, Jeff Sheldon
Communications Director, Nebraska Appleseed
Office: (402) 438-8853
Mobile: (402) 840-7289
New poultry industry standards threaten to endanger workers’ health, food safety, and animal welfare
On July 10, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget a final version of a new rule concerning poultry processing. The original rule, first proposed in early 2012, posed significant danger to the health and safety of poultry processing workers and the safety of our food. While the USDA has stated that the final version has been “significantly” changed in response to comments in the last two years, they have refused to reveal any details of the final rule to Congress or to the public.
In response, a coalition of organizations, including Nebraska Appleseed and Southern Poverty Law Center, that is spearheading opposition to the proposed rule is making the following statement:
“After so many people have expressed significant opposition to the original version of the proposed rule, it’s shocking that the administration would rush the final version without disclosing the particulars and inviting feedback. We call on the Administration to give the public an opportunity to review and comment on the revised document. As originally written, this proposed rule would exacerbate the already high risk of crippling injuries to poultry workers by substantially increasing processing line speeds and jeopardize the safety of our food by removing Federal poultry inspectors from the processing line.”
Since the poultry rule was first proposed in early 2012, it has been opposed by hundreds of thousands of consumers, 68 Members of Congress, and more than 100 organizations. “The rule proposed by the USDA posed substantial dangers to workers, consumers, and animals,” the coalition stated. “If USDA did indeed make ‘significant’ changes to the rules, we are eager to see them, and to make sure that they are profound enough to address the very real concerns of the public. There is no reason not to make this process transparent and thorough.”
Several organizations are expressly concerned about changes to the processing line speeds that would accelerate the pace to 175 birds per minute (a 25% increase), and how this change would affect the women and men who already suffer from an epidemic of serious and disabling repetitive motion injuries and lacerations due to the dangerously fast speed of work. The US poultry industry relies on roughly 200,000 workers—predominantly women, immigrants, and people of color—to process chickens and turkeys.
As a chicken flies by every second, the worker repeats the same forceful motions (cutting, pulling, grabbing, and hanging) over and over. As noted in a complaint filed with OSHA by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Nebraska Appleseed, and other groups, a worker may perform more than 20,000 motions per shift.
The thousands of disabling injuries that result are well-documented. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), poultry workers “have consistently suffered injuries and illnesses at a rate more than twice the national average” over the past 30 years. Experts say these numbers may be significantly underreporting the problem. A 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) acknowledges that, even with underreporting, “the meat and poultry industry still has one of the highest rates of injury and illness of any industry.”
In addition to speeding up the line, the original version of the proposed new rule would make it more difficult for inspectors to check poultry for the presence of fecal contamination, bile, diseases, tumors, feathers, intestines, and other harmful defects. The new rule would leave only one USDA inspector on the slaughter line to inspect three chicken carcasses every second. Key inspection responsibilities would be left in the hands of poultry companies.
Coalition members include:
Interfaith Worker Justice
Food and Water Watch
Coalition of Black Trade Unionists
Public Justice Center
Southern Poverty Law Center
Northwest Arkansas Workers Justice Center
Western North Carolina Worker Center