If the Obama administration gives the green light soon, fewer federal inspectors will be present in poultry processing plants and the lines will be allowed to speed up, a change that critics say could be risky for both food and worker safety.
Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., who represents a state where poultry is a $13 billion industry, supports the inspection changes and has urged Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to make them final.
By law, an inspector must check each poultry carcass for defects and visible contamination. The new plan would replace most federal inspectors on poultry processing lines with company workers who would watch for defects as chicken and turkey carcasses zip through. The move would mean more control over the inspection process for companies, enabling them to increase profits by processing birds faster.
Worker advocates say allowing the lines to move any faster would exacerbate the already serious problem of hand, wrist and other injuries caused by repetitive motions. And food safety groups say that the federal government has yet to prove that the new inspection system would reduce the bacteria responsible for most food-borne illnesses.
Supporters counter that reliance on federal inspectors to look at each carcass for defects is outdated. A pilot program using plant employees for much of the quality control process has been under way since 1999. The program is now underway in 20 chicken and five turkey plants.
Among them are two North Carolina poultry operations: the Townsend Inc. chicken plant in Siler City and the Butterball turkey plant in Mount Olive.
“Our poultry slaughter inspection standards are out of date and the updates I have called for, along with a bipartisan group of senators, are science-based and have been extensively tested through pilot programs,” Hagan said by email in response to questions about the proposed rule.
None of the plants where the proposed new inspection system has been tested has been linked to major illnesses, she said, nor do Department of Labor statistics show an increase in worker injuries.
“Data . . . has shown not only for food safety, but also worker safety that these plants are on par or performing better than those in the traditional inspection system,” said Tom Super, vice president for communications at the National Chicken Council, the trade association for the chicken industry.
In a letter to Vilsack, Hagan argued that the rule change would reduce the number of food-borne illnesses and save taxpayers money. Other signers were Republican Sens. Roy Blunt of Missouri, John Boozman of Arkansas, Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson of Georgia, John Cornyn of Texas and Charles Grassley of Iowa. The Democrats were Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Mark Warner of Virginia, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Chris Coons of Delaware and Joe Donnelly of Indiana.
Though not a signer, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., also has requested that the USDA tell the poultry industry when the rule would be sent for a final White House review and implemented.
The proposed inspection changes have been pending since January 2012. Opponents say they recently got word that they could soon be on a fast track for final approval, possibly by mid-February.
“This is an issue we take very seriously, and we would not put forward a proposal if we thought it would have a negative impact on worker safety," Brian Ronholm, USDA's acting under secretary for food safety, said in a statement. "In the past 15 years of operating the pilot program, FSIS has found no evidence to suggest that worker safety would be compromised by modernizing poultry slaughter inspection. While FSIS does not believe the proposed rule will impact worker safety, it has partnered with federal agencies responsible for worker safety to address the concerns that have been expressed about this issue.”
But critics argue that the numbers aren’t solid. Injury statistics are based entirely on what employers report to the federal government, said Celeste Monforton, a science blogger and lecturer at the George Washington University School of Public Health & Health Services.
Many studies have found that employers don’t report all injuries as they should, nor do workers because they’re afraid of being fired, she said.
Hagan said of the proposed rule that she was “confident that adequate protections are in place as poultry lines move faster.” The USDA’s own peer-reviewed assessment found that the new inspection system would prevent 5,000 cases of food-borne illness per year
But the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, said in a report in August that the USDA was going ahead without proper data collection and evaluation needed to prove that food safety would be improved.
In addition, Tony Corbo, a senior lobbyist at Food & Water Watch, a food safety advocacy group, questioned the legitimacy of the USDA assessment because the industry contributes money and has influence at the land-grant universities where the reviewers are based. In addition, like so many other interests with a stake in Washington oversight, the poultry industry supports lawmakers by contributing to their campaigns.
Hagan, who is running this year for a second term in the U.S. Senate, has received $12,000 so far in the 2014 campaign cycle from the industry, including $8,000 from the National Turkey Federation. North Carolina is the No. 2 turkey-producing state.
The Agriculture Department already has no legal authority to close a plant because of excessive levels of toxic bacteria, such as salmonella. Critics say the proposed inspection changes would be another instance of reining in government oversight of private industry.
“For the Obama administration not to take the initiative and go to Congress for the additional authority, it’s mindboggling to us,” said Corbo. “Instead, it’s handing the industry this gift.”
The role of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which oversees workplace safety, is limited as well. “There are currently no specific OSHA standards for poultry processing,” the agency notes on its website.
Under the proposed changes, companies could speed up the chicken processing lines to 175 birds per minute from a maximum of 140 now. The current rate is based on 35 birds per minute per federal unionized inspector, so four inspectors are needed for the maximum speed.
The proposed rule contains no requirement that company inspectors have to be trained, according to Food & Water Watch. The USDA would offer training guidance, but plant operators would be free to decide how to train their own quality-control inspectors. A single federal inspector would be stationed at the end of the line for final checks. Others would be reassigned to different duties. Some would lose their jobs.
The USDA estimated that the new rule would allow 6 percent more chickens and turkeys to be processed without adding workers, leading to economic benefits of $260 million, or 3 cents per bird.
The Charlotte Observer published a series of stories in 2008 about the working conditions and the failure of regulators to get tough on companies that repeatedly run afoul of workplace safety rules. The newspaper analysis found that federal safety reports based on the companies’ self-reported data showed that working at a poultry plant was safer than working in a toy store.
Some workers tell a different story. Basilio Castro, who worked at the Case Farms chicken plant in Morganton, N.C., in 2004 and 2005, experienced throbbing in his hands, shoulder and back from making thousands of cuts in the plant all day.
“It wouldn’t let you sleep,” he said in a recent interview.
Now an organizer at the Western North Carolina Worker Center, Castro meets regularly with workers suffering all types of musculoskeletal problems.
“They tell me, ‘We have to endure because we don’t have another way to work in this country,’” he said.
Sara Quandt, a professor at the Wake Forest School of Medicine, has studied Latino poultry processing workers for the past decade. A study of workers in western North Carolina found significantly more carpal tunnel syndrome in poultry processing line workers than other manual laborers.
In her own research, she said workers have told her of not being able to button a shirt, hold a child or do housework.
Quandt added, “But what they said was, ‘I have to work so I have to suffer.’”
Franco Ordonez of the Washington Bureau contributed.