BUSINESS
01/31/2018 06:00 pm ET

USDA Spares Poultry Workers Faster Line Speeds, But Hog Workers May Not Get So Lucky

Activists celebrated the decision, but remain concerned about the welfare of workers in hog plants.
The USDA rejected a petition from the poultry industry to allow plants to ramp up line speeds. The change could have jeopardi
Brusonja via Getty Images
The USDA rejected a petition from the poultry industry to allow plants to ramp up line speeds. The change could have jeopardized worker safety and caused food safety issues.

Apparently not all regulated industries are getting what they want out of the Trump White House.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it was rejecting a petition from the poultry industry that would have allowed chicken slaughterhouses to ramp up line speeds. That USDA decision came just two weeks after the government agency proposed a rule that would allow hog plants to do away entirely with maximum line speeds.

The poultry proposal came under heavy fire from consumer and work safety advocates, who argued that lifting the speed caps in slaughterhouses could endanger employees and the public because it would require faster work and less time for food safety inspections.

Poultry workers and their allies even protested outside USDA headquarters recently while wearing diapers ― a nod to the fact that some plant workers say the pace is so unrelenting they don’t have enough time to use the bathroom.

Those groups are now celebrating a rare regulatory victory under the Trump administration. In a letter to the poultry lobby on Tuesday, the USDA said it was not convinced that lifting the line speeds would be safe. Most plants have a maximum line speed of 140 birds per minute under USDA rules. The National Chicken Council wanted to eliminate maximum line speeds altogether for plants willing to take part in an updated inspection program.

The speedup would have applied to the zone in poultry plants known as the evisceration section ― the place where the organs are removed from the bird.

But safety advocates argued that if more birds are being sent down the evisceration line, then the extra work would spill over into other parts of the plant, too, like the “live hang” section where birds are prepped for killing.

The maximum line speeds are supposed to allow USDA inspectors adequate time to visually examine and flag any problematic birds that need to be pulled off the line. USDA inspectors, who analyze each carcass that comes down the line, are tasked with identifying diseased birds. They also examine the birds whose feathers and intestines have already been removed for any visible fecal matter. If the line moves too fast, the worry is that a contaminated bird will make it past inspectors and potentially wind up in the food supply.

Workers in poultry plants are susceptible to a whole host of risks. Many develop carpal-tunnel syndrome, nerve condition
Martynasfoto via Getty Images
Workers in poultry plants are susceptible to a whole host of risks. Many develop carpal-tunnel syndrome, nerve conditions, musculoskeletal disorders and other repetitive motion-related ailments. Plus, there’s exposure to chemicals and pathogens.

“We established the [maximum] line speeds because that’s the rate at which we can verify the safety of the product,” Carmen Rottenberg, deputy administrator at the Food Safety and Inspection Service at USDA, told HuffPost. “Line speeds are set up for that purpose.” Rottenberg added that it’s not up to her agency to account for worker safety issues and that it predominantly focuses on food safety concerns.

There are 20 plants that can already operate at a higher line speed ― up to 175 birds per minute, rather than 140 ― as part of a USDA pilot program. Rottenberg said other plants could seek the same waiver, and those applications would be considered on a case-by-case basis.

The agency is also considering allowing faster line speeds in pork processing plants. Worker safety groups have criticized that proposal as well. They hailed the USDA’s decision to reject the proposal for poultry plants as a step in the right direction.

“It’s a stunning rebuke to an industry whose business model is to increase profits by sacrificing worker safety and health,” said Debbie Berkowitz, an occupational safety expert at the National Employment Law Project, which campaigned against the proposal. “The nation’s poultry workers are a lot safer for it, as well as consumers.”

The poultry industry has argued that the speed caps should be loosened. The inspectors are looking for fecal matter or blemishes that might indicate a problem with a bird, but the industry says that visual inspections don’t help identify invisible risks like salmonella. The National Chicken Council, a leading lobbying group for the poultry industry, proposed that those caps be waived altogether for plants that have opted into a revamped inspection process that was developed by the USDA.

Under the industry plan, if a plant has already adapted to the USDA’s new inspection guidelines, its line speeds should be as fast as they want.

Poultry workers protested outside of the USDA's offices recently to decry the hazardous conditions they say they face in plan
United Food and Commercial Workers
Poultry workers protested outside of the USDA's offices recently to decry the hazardous conditions they say they face in plants. Some wore diapers to signify the relentless conditions, and how they often don't even have enough time to go to the bathroom.

Although the line speed limits are set for food safety purposes, worker advocates say they serve another important function: keeping the work pace in check. Poultry processing is a notoriously grueling and often low-paying job, often filled by refugees and immigrants. In 2010, about one-third of workers in poultry plants were made up of foreign workers, the Los Angeles Times reported last year.

While injury rates in the poultry slaughtering and processing industry declined from 2004 to 2013, according to a 2016 U.S. Government Accountability Office report, many work-related injuries and illnesses often go unreported. Many workers are reluctant to come forward because they fear losing their jobs, and employers may underreport these cases because of concerns surrounding costs.

Amputations are not uncommon in slaughterhouses, and many workers suffer from carpal-tunnel syndrome, nerve conditions, musculoskeletal disorders, and other repetitive motion-related ailments. Plus, there’s exposure to chemicals and pathogens. Workers in poultry plants face the same hazardous risks today that they did back in 2005, according to the GAO.

In short, critics of the industry’s proposal said poultry lines already move too fast ― speeding them up would make these jobs even more hazardous.

One of the most vocal opponents of removing the line speed caps was the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents 70,000 poultry workers in the U.S. The union called the USDA’s decision to reject the petition “a victory for hard-working poultry workers who hold one of the most dangerous and difficult jobs in America.”

“It was unbelievable to see major poultry industry groups ignore these well-known risks and lobby the USDA to eliminate line speeds,” said Marc Perrone, the union’s president.

When the USDA said last year it would consider the industry’s petition, the loosening of the line speeds seemed very likely. Not only has the Trump administration been taking an ax to labor and environmental rules, but both Democrats and Republicans have targeted this particular regulation in the past.

USDA officials under President Barack Obama proposed allowing higher line speeds in poultry plants in 2014, prompting a backlash from worker and consumer groups that were normally on the Democrats’ side. The agency eventually shelved that plan for the remainder of Obama’s presidency, though critics expected it to be revived under the Trump administration.

Even though the USDA turned down the poultry industry’s request, the agency is still considering lifting line speed caps in hog processing plants.

Under a proposal floated earlier this month, the USDA would take some of the inspection responsibilities from government workers in pork plants and shift them to plant employees. The latter would be responsible for identifying and removing sickly hogs, freeing up USDA inspectors to focus on food safety issues off the processing line, like microbial testing. The USDA has called it an inspection “modernization” plan.

If a plant opts into this new system, the typical speed limit ― currently 1,106 hogs per hour ― would be waived. In theory, the plant could then process hogs as fast as it wanted, so long as unfit animals were still culled from the line.

The same groups that opposed lifting the line speeds in poultry plants have come out in opposition to the plan for hog plants, saying it would pose the same dangers to health and safety. The USDA said it will put the plan up for a 60-day period of public comment.

“We’ll consider comments on that rule,” Rottenberg said. “Any comments we receive, will inform any final rule we move forward with on swine.”

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