When we all sit down for Thanksgiving dinner, we hope that the food we are feeding our families is wholesome and that the workers who produce it are safe. Thanks to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), ever the mindless booster of corporate profits, that turkey at the center of the table already disappoints both expectations, and if USDA has its way, matters are about to get much worse. Hiding behind disingenuous promises to "modernize" the food safety system, USDA has decided to pull federal food inspectors off the line at poultry processing plants across the nation. No new preventative measures to ensure that poultry is free of salmonella would happen. And already crowded, bloody, stinking lines would speed up dramatically -- to as many as 175 birds per minute, or three birds/second. Workers who suffer grave ergonomic injuries from the repetitive motions of hanging, cutting, and packing the birds would endure conditions that are two or three times worse than the status quo.
The consequences of USDA's de-regulatory scheme are well documented. Back in 2001, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found significant food safety concerns in pilot plants authorized to test the new system and just this past summer slammed the USDA's data in justifying the program. The Agency is using data cherry-picked from two-year snapshots over a 15-year period of the piloted system to justify the program and relying on old and inaccurate economic analysis.
Groups like Food and Water Watch have amassed evidence of the puss and bile filled carcasses that result from the un-inspected poultry and the European Union has rejected imports from Australia, which uses the same weak approach to inspections.
To make matters worse, the USDA program, called "HIMP," would allow chlorine "baths" to substitute for human quality control for the poultry as it makes its way through the evisceration process. Kimberly Kindy of The Washington Post has documented the devastating health effects these chemicals have on inspectors and plant workers alike.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has reported on the impacts punishing evisceration line speeds already have on the bodies of poultry workers. In a report put out earlier this year they found:
"Nearly three-quarters of the poultry workers interviewed... described suffering some type of significant work-related injury or illness. In spite of many factors that lead to undercounting of injuries in poultry plants, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reported an injury rate of 5.9 percent for poultry processing workers in 2010, a rate that is more than 50 percent higher than the 3.8 percent injury rate for all U.S. workers."
When the USDA proposal first came out, White House staff at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) cleared it very quickly without checking with occupational disease experts at OSHA. Instead, former OIRA head Cass Sunstein trotted out the $250 million savings to struggling corporations like Tysons, Perdue and Holly Farms. That money will be taken out of the health of poultry workers.
It's way past time that USDA put the safety and security of workers and consumers ahead of Big Chicken.