Could a Proposed Poultry Industry Rule Put Workers at Risk?

A proposed regulation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)'s Food Safety Inspection Service could result in faster production line speeds in poultry plants and therefore put workers at an increased risk of incurring musculoskeletal injuries, according to two workers' advocacy organizations.

The proposed rule, "Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection," aims to improve food safety by streamlining and automating some aspects of the inspection process that is required to identify and dispose of contaminated poultry. USDA claims the rule could improve the efficiency of poultry inspections, reduce the risk of foodborne illness and save money for businesses and taxpayers.

The regulation would allow plants to increase line speeds from 71-90 birds per minute to a maximum of 175 birds per minute. According to NCLR (National Council of La Raza), a Latino workers' advocacy organization, and The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), the proposed rule does not address how such an increased line speed might impact worker health and safety.

"Common sense says that if you take a process that is already dangerous and nearly double the speed of production lines, you will increase the risk of injury among poultry workers," said Eric Rodriguez, vice president of the Office of Research, Advocacy, and Legislation at NCLR. "It is gravely irresponsible to press ahead with this rule given what we know about the conditions in the poultry industry today."

In its "Latinos in the Poultry Processing Industry" report, NCLR documents the hazards poultry workers face as they perform repetitive tasks such as sorting, hanging, cutting and trimming poultry at rapid speeds in crowded, damp conditions. Musculoskeletal injuries to the hands, wrists, and arms are common but widely underreported because of the precarious employment status of many workers, NCLR said.

"USDA should rescind this rule and work with other federal agencies to develop a comprehensive plan to mitigate hazards and protect poultry workers," Rodriguez added.

Mark Laurtisen, UFCW international vice president and director of the Food Processing, Packing and Manufacturing Division, said that while increased line speeds might mean bigger bottom lines for the poultry industry, "it means more danger on the job." UFCW called on USDA to halt this rule until NIOSH could conduct comprehensive studies on the impact it would have on the health and safety of workers in poultry plants.

In an April 19 blog post on USDA's blog, Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elizabeth Hagen wrote: "It may surprise you to learn that the USDA has been inspecting poultry in largely the same way since the 1950's. So, while our scientific knowledge of what causes foodborne illness has evolved, our inspection process has not been updated to reflect this new information. Under this modernization proposal, significant public health benefits will be achieved and foodborne illness will be prevented by focusing our inspectors attention on activities that will better ensure the safety of the poultry you and your family enjoy."

The USDA recently extended the comment period on this proposed rule. The deadline to comment is now May 29.

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