Posted October 16, 2017
Industry Wants to Circumvent Federal Rules with Illegal Exemptions from Line-Speed Limits
Washington, DC—On Monday afternoon at 2:30 Eastern, poultry workers and representatives from 13 non-profit organizations and unions—in an unprecedented coalition of worker rights, civil rights, consumer safety, public health, and animal welfare groups—will meet with top officials of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service to urge them to reject a poultry industry petition to allow faster and unrestricted line speeds in poultry plants.
This poultry industry’s petition asks the USDA to set up a system that would allow poultry plants to run their lines in violation of federal rules, removing any line-speed limits—and endangering both workers and consumers, say advocates.
“There are no grounds on which the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service can legally grant this industry petition,” said Deborah Berkowitz, senior fellow on worker safety and health with the National Employment Law Project (NELP) and a former senior official with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “The petition is both legally and substantially flawed. The industry is trying to do an end-run around the law, seeking these exemptions behind closed doors.”
“There is already a high rate of injuries at the current speed of 140 birds per minute, there is understaffing, and workers experience problems with getting time to see the nurse when they are injured”, explained a poultry worker from, Alabama, who is a member of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU).
“Any small profit that the industry would see from speeding up the line would quickly be cancelled by problems with more frequent injuries and compromised food safety. Increasing line speed would undermine the safety of workers and consumers, and extract a high price in the end,” said Minor Sinclair, director of Oxfam America’s U.S. Domestic Program. “These jobs are already dangerous, dirty, and difficult. Faster line speed would make them unbearable.”
“Poultry workers come to us every day expressing their dismay that the plants and supervisors put all their priority on keeping up production, and have no regard for what that means for workers or consumers. The line dictates everything that happens,” said Hunter Ogletree of the Western North Carolina Workers’ Center. “Workers are routinely denied breaks, even to use the bathroom; are rarely provided with adequate safety training; and are often compelled to work through pain and injury. Increasing the line speed would just ramp up the pressure, increasing risk of injury and squeezing these workers past the breaking point.”
Poultry workers already work in harsh and dangerous conditions at breakneck line speeds, with the result that they face injury rates almost twice the national average and illness rates that are over six times as high. These numbers are likely an undercount, due to underreporting of injuries by the industry. Poultry workers also suffer among the highest number of severe injuries, such as amputations and injuries involving hospitalization. A new study published this month in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine confirms that the poultry industry has among the highest numbers of work related amputations.
Any increase in currently allowable line speeds in poultry plants would also jeopardize the health and safety of consumers at large. The faster the line speed, the greater the risk of harm—including higher incidences of salmonella and campylobacter in poultry carcasses. Animal welfare advocates also are concerned that faster line speeds pose a greater risk of inhumane handling—and needless suffering—of animals.
“Speeding up these slaughter lines will further exacerbate the suffering of billions of animals who are exempted from even the bare-bone basic protections of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act,” said Erica Meier, executive director of Compassion Over Killing.
“Faster slaughter speeds mean more suffering. Hundreds of thousands of birds are unintentionally boiled alive each year because fast-moving slaughter lines fail to kill the birds before they are dropped into scalding water. Dying by a cause other than slaughter is not only cruel, it is illegal. The ASPCA echoes worker and food safety organizations and unions in condemning the poultry industry for seeking to increase production at a brutal cost,” said Deborah Dubow Press, director of regulatory affairs at the ASPCA.
“In 2014, the USDA issued a rule denying an increase in line speeds because the evidence is clear: any increase to line speeds would have serious negative consequences to the health of consumers and the workers who put food on America’s tables,” said NELP’s Deborah Berkowitz. “USDA must reject this petition. They must not bend and break the rules to benefit big business and wealthy corporations at the expense of regular working people and consumers.”
Participants at today’s meeting with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service will include workers from Alabama and North Carolina poultry plants; NELP; Oxfam America; United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW); International Brotherhood of Teamsters; RWDSU; American Federation of Government Employees; Southern Poverty Law Center; American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA); Food and Water Watch; Compassion Over Killing; A Better Balance; Center for Progressive Reform; and Celeste Monforton, Ph.D., of the occupational safety section of the American Public Health Association.