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Editorial boards come out against USDA's proposed poultry rule

If local and regional newspapers had their say in it, the USDA would rethink its proposed poultry rule, which would drastically increase the inspection line speeds at poultry factories and would replace government inspectors with company-appointed ones.

In the past couple of weeks, the folly of the proposed rule has been opined about in editorial pages in newspapers from the most affected regions.

Today, the News and Observer in Raleigh, N.C. wrote

“Anyone who has been to a poultry plant knows the speed at which the carcasses move along the lines and the quickness with which workers do their cutting. It is a grueling job, but in some cases it’s the only job these workers can get, even if it means long-term hand and wrist injuries.

For that reason, workers often don’t want to report injuries for fear they will lose their jobs. That’s why some worker advocates are skeptical about glowing safety reports from companies.”

And

“Even prior to this proposed change taking effect, it appears the industry was not tightly regulated. Says the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on its website: “There are currently no specific OSHA standards for poultry processing.”

Before new policies help companies move chickens, they should first pass the test of protecting workers.”

Yesterday, the Gaston Gazette in North Carolina wrote

“Poultry plants in North Carolina have been criticized for workplace practices and lax attention to regulations resulting in injuries and safety violations. In 2010, The Charlotte Observer reported that some companies deliberately underreported injuries and that regulators often slashed fines for violations.

Yet we’re now supposed to believe that some of these companies won’t cut corners in the inspection process?”

These editorials follow an article published last week in the Charlotte Observer:

“Warning horns should blast full force around the Obama administration approving a change in federal law to replace most federal inspectors on poultry processing lines with company workers who would watch for problems. Worker advocates’ concerns that such a change would be a risk to both food and worker safety have considerable merit.

The change would enable poultry companies to speed up their processing lines, and thus increase the likelihood of more – and more serious – injuries to workers caused by repetitive hand motions. And workers who often fear for their jobs if they report problems might be more reluctant than independent federal inspectors to report defects that cause food-borne illnesses.

A 2008 Observer series about working conditions in the poultry industry highlighted the problems of allowing companies to self-report on injuries at their plants. Our series found employers failing to report injuries that they should, and workers afraid they’d be fired if they reported such injuries. This change could have both following the same pattern with troubling consequences for all of us.”

The Star News in North Carolina also wrote last week

"If the Obama administration allows these changes to go forward, it must ensure that someone other than company inspectors is checking to make sure that neither food safety nor workplace safety is compromised in the process."

Additional stories about the poultry rule also have raised red flags about the proposal.

The Gainesville Times in Georgia writes

“The changes, however, would fall on the backs of immigrants and women, who constitute a large percentage of the industry workforce.

“Our goal here is not to turn people off from eating chicken,” [Catherine] Singley [of the National Council of La Raza] said. “This is a vital industry for the American economy, for Latino workers. Our goal is to improve the quality of those jobs and to make those jobs safer for people in places like Georgia.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has no enforceable rules or guidelines governing workplace standards in the poultry industry, a fact that concerns critics of the proposed rule change.

“One of the things that’s really challenging when looking at working conditions in the poultry industry ... is that most of the employer-reported injury data is not accurate,” said Tom Fritzsche, staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center who has authored a report on working conditions in Alabama poultry plants.

Ames Alexander, a reporter with The Charlotte Observer, wrote last week

“Critics argue that the numbers aren’t solid. Injury statistics are based entirely on what employers report to the federal government, said Celeste Monforton, a science blogger and lecturer at the George Washington University School of Public Health & Health Services.

Many studies have found that employers don’t report all injuries as they should, nor do workers because they’re afraid of being fired, she said.”

“Basilio Castro, who worked at the Case Farms chicken plant in Morganton in 2004 and 2005, experienced throbbing in his hands, shoulder and back from making thousands of cuts in the plant all day.

“It wouldn’t let you sleep,” he said in a recent interview.

Now an organizer at the Western North Carolina Worker Center, Castro meets regularly with workers suffering all types of musculoskeletal problems.

“They tell me, ‘We have to endure because we don’t have another way to work in this country,’ ” he said.”

The proposed rule also has raised ire with the Congressional Black Caucus. Rep. Marcia Fudge, who chairs the CBC, came out against the poultry rule last week. 

"Most of the people who work in these plants are women, and they are primarily women of color," says Fudge. "We care most about the health of the employees. Right now, it is bad. It will just get worse if they increase the line speed."

We hope this momentum in publicly criticizing the rule will cause the Obama administration to rethink this senseless standard.

 *Photo by Earl Dotter

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