NPR: Too Fast for Safety? Poultry Industry Wants to Speed Up the Slaughter Line

After serving five years in the Navy, Tyler Dunn has returned home to Hickman, Ken. These days, if he isn’t at work at the local liquor store or completing assignments for a business degree, you might find him shadowed by one of several stray cats he saved from a parking lot.

It’s hard to reconcile this image of Dunn — military veteran, serious student and sensitive pet owner — with another fact about his life. Nearly 10 years ago, he was fired by Tyson Foods, in Union City, Tenn., for animal cruelty.

“I worked there for two years before I was let go for ‘animal cruelty.’ I wouldn’t call it animal cruelty,” says Dunn.

But industry critics say the underlying problem is the speed at which employees must do their work in plants where 140 birds may go by in a minute.

“I feel like the workers aren’t bad people,” says Debbie Berkowitz, a senior fellow with the worker rights group National Employment Law Project and a former senior official with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. She says the higher line speeds increase emotional and physical stress for both workers and animals.

“There is a direct connection. If you make workers work at breakneck speed, they don’t really have a choice,” Berkowitz says. “The live hang is probably the worst and most disgusting job in America.”

Berkowitz is among a group of worker and food safety advocates concerned about a proposal from the poultry industry which would allow an even faster rate of work in parts of some processing facilities. They warn that higher line speeds increase the risks for foodborne illness and worker injuries in an industry that has an already spotty safety record.

“If they are going to allow 140 birds per minute to whiz by — now they are going to go to 170 or 200 or 250 — that means that many more birds are being killed per hour,” Berkowitz says. “Which means live hang has to hang that many more birds.”

Berkowitz says this is also where most worker injuries occur. Federal statistics show that animal slaughtering and processing facilities are the 6th most dangerous workplaces for severe injuries. According to a Government Accountability Office report, most musculoskeletal injuries caused by repetitive movement, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, are not reported by workers.

Berkowitz says she has interviewed many poultry workers who face that situation. “They’re scared that they’re going to get fired if they report an injury or if they file a worker’s complaint,” she says. “So they just go on unpaid leave and they take care of it themselves.”

This has created unease among food safety advocates, because they are uncertain how the USDA plans to approach the rule-making process. A letter from the USDA in response to the National Chicken Council’s petition refers to the requested waiver as a policy change.

Berkowitz says she is afraid this could result in decision making behind closed doors.

The petition is online for public comment until December 13th. A USDA spokesperson said the department’s practice is to withhold comment on a petition under consideration.

Read the full article on NPR.

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