America’s poultry workers better get ready to work faster.
A previously abandoned and controversial plan to speed up processing lines inside chicken plants has found new life under the Trump administration. The industry has formally asked that the White House lift the limits capping how quickly birds can move down plant lines, which would allow meatpacking companies to process more chickens.
But worker rights and food safety groups say the plan would also make a difficult job even harder, endangering vulnerable workers and weakening the food inspection process. Eleven such organizations plan to visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture next week ― accompanied by poultry workers ― demanding that it reject the industry’s proposal.
In most poultry facilities, line speeds are currently capped at 140 birds per minute to allow adequate time to inspect them for signs of contamination. The industry has proposed that the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service get rid of the limits altogether for facilities that choose to take part in a new inspection program aimed at cutting down on salmonella and other foodborne dangers.
Opponents of a speedup claim the current rates are already too fast and that any increase would be accompanied by a rise in carpal tunnel syndrome and other painful injuries common to the low-wage meatpacking workforce.
Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents 70,000 poultry workers around the country, sent a letter Wednesday to the USDA calling the industry effort “troubling.”
“Poultry workers hold some of the most dangerous and difficult jobs in America,” Perrone said. “The implications of this rule change are striking.”
It isn’t clear when the USDA would make a decision on the request, and a USDA spokeswoman declined to comment. The agency is now run by Sonny Perdue, the former Georgia governor whose nomination enjoyed wide support from agricultural and poultry companies. (He is not related to the Perdue family famous for its supermarket chickens.)
A spokesman for the National Chicken Council, an industry lobby, said its petition to the USDA speaks for itself. The petition argues that allowing a speedup would have no impact on food safety and that the industry’s falling occupational injury rate should allay concerns about the effects on workers. Granting the speedup, the council argued, would be right in line with Trump’s deregulatory agenda.
“These cost saving actions are consistent with the regulatory reform initiatives recently put in place by the President, and waivers are consistent with the Administration’s emphasis on reducing regulatory burdens on the industry,” the petition reads.
The chicken industry has fought for years to raise the cap on line speeds, just as worker and consumer groups have fought to beat back those efforts. The Obama administration proposed then later pulled a speedup plan after an outcry from worker and consumer groups as well as Democrats in Congress. That rule would have raised the cap from 140 birds per minute to 170, a speed that was allowed only at plants that took part in a special pilot program. Under the latest proposal, there would be no cap at all for many plants.
“Poultry workers hold some of the most dangerous and difficult jobs in America. The implications of this rule change are striking.”
The industry claims U.S. plants need to process more birds to keep up with competitors in other countries where the speed caps are more lax. “Creating a waiver system to allow establishments to operate without arbitrary line speed limits will put U.S. producers on more equal footing,” the council argued.
The case for allowing faster line speeds rests largely on the rosy injury data for chicken processing jobs. The data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics seems to show that poultry work has been getting less dangerous over time, with the number of injuries per 100 workers dropping, from nearly 10 in 2004 to less than six in 2013. From the industry’s perspective, the improving safety picture makes the concern over line speeds overblown.
But the injury data isn’t everything it seems. Many workers choose not to disclose injuries to their bosses for fear of losing their jobs, while many companies choose not to disclose injuries to federal officials for fear of increased scrutiny and higher costs. As a result, many experts believe the overall injury rate for the field is much higher than the statistics indicate.
It isn’t just labor groups that question the accuracy of the improving injury numbers: The U.S. Government Accountability Office published a report in 2016 probing the poultry industry’s “underreporting” problem and saying the federal data probably don’t provide a complete picture of the hazards involved in poultry work. The GAO found that at some plants workers were punished for visiting the in-house health clinic too frequently.
As one occupational health expert previously put it to HuffPost, “We should have no confidence about the industry’s assertions about its injury rates.”
The poultry lobby already has some GOP backing on Capitol Hill. Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, whose state is the leading slaughterer of chickens in the U.S., recently published an opinion piece in The Hill saying the nation’s poultry plants don’t move fast enough.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), a longtime opponent of faster lines, fired back at Collins, writing in her own op-ed that the poultry industry is already “dangerous enough.” “These corporations rarely stop the line or even slow it down ― leaving workers making tens of thousands of repetitive motions each day,” DeLauro wrote.