Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Ranking Member of the House Labor Appropriations Committee, today sent a sharply worded letter to Carmen Rottenberg, acting head of USDA’s Food Safety Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) calling on the agency to reject a petition from the National Chicken Council to increase the line speed for poultry workers.
The legislators argue that
granting the petition would further endanger an already vulnerable workforce. Poultry workers face harsh and dangerous working conditions. Industry-reported statistics show that poultry workers are injured at rates almost twice the national average and suffer occupational illnesses at a rate that is over six times as high. Still worse, according to FSIS itself, these shocking figures significantly understate the actual rate of injury and illness among these workers.
Poultry workers currently work at breakneck line speeds, and further increasing the speeds will inevitably result in even more worker injuries and illnesses. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) research shows staggeringly high rates of injuries directly related to the rapid, repetitive movements these workers must perform. In one study, 34 percent of such workers had carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), and 76 percent had evidence of nerve damage in their hands and wrists. In another study, 42 percent had CTS. Further, workers in the poultry industry suffer finger amputations at the single highest rate of any U.S. industry.
They argue that FSIS does not have the authority to grant the petition because the agency only has temporary waiver authority and “only 1) in the event of a public health emergency or 2) “to permit experimentation so that new procedures, equipment and processing techniques may be tested to facilitate definite improvements.”
There is no public health emergency according to Murray and DeLauro, and “there is nothing ‘new’ or ‘experiment[al]’ about fast line speeds.” Not only has the department already issued a waiver to some plants, but “FSIS issued a final rule in 2014 declining to allow any increase in the line speed limit beyond 140 bpm.”
Additionally, FSIS assured the public that it would make no changes to any provisions in the rule until it could assess the impact of changes under the NPIS after it has been “fully implemented on a wide scale” for at least one year. The system has not been “fully implemented on a wide scale;” only a few dozen plants out of the 187 expected to convert to NPIS have operated for a year or more under it.
The Chicken Council has been waging a long campaign speed up production. Chicken Council spokesperson Tom Super says we’re in a race to the bottom that they don’t wnt to lose: “The motivation behind the higher line speeds is to keep up with international competitors.”
But as a recent NPR story describes, worker groups are fighting back, warning that “higher line speeds increase the risks for foodborne illness and worker injuries in an industry that has an already spotty safety record.”
Workers are hurting. “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.”
And it’s not good for people who eat chicken either. Under a pilot project, according to a former USDA inspector, only one federal inspector is responsible for viewing birds that come through the chicken evisceration line. “‘You had less than 30 seconds to inspect the chicken. How can you look at the front, back, up and down and inside a chicken in 30 seconds? [retired USDA inspector Phyllis] McKelvey asks before answering her own question: ‘There’s no way.’”
Thirteen non-profit organizations and unions, including worker rights, civil rights, consumer safety, public health, and animal welfare groups—met with top officials last month to “to urge them to reject a poultry industry petition to allow faster and unrestricted line speeds in poultry plants.” And last August, the groups sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sunny Purdue calling on him to ”oppose any proposed rule that would increase line speeds in poultry plants within the United States above the current 140 birds per minute (bpm).”