Last week, organizations representing consumers and farm workers convened in Washington, D.C., to speak with members of Congress and U.S. Department of Agriculture officials about the threat they feel new poultry plant regulations pose to both plant worker safety and food safety as a whole.
The USDA regulations of concern are part of HIMP, or the HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project (HACCP stands for Hazards Analysis and Critical Control Points). HIMP has been in practice since 1999, when a select number of poultry and hog plants began operating pilot programs under a new set of inspection rules intended to improve the microbial food safety. Today, HIMP pilot programs are taking place in 20 chicken plants, five hog plants and five turkey plants.
One major point of contention brought up by the groups in D.C. centers on line speeds. As part of the HIMP program, chicken plants have been permitted to increase the speed of their evisceration lines from 140 to 175 birds per minute.
U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) and other congressional leaders joined a coalition of poultry plant workers on Thursday to urge USDA to not allow for increased line speeds when the HIMP rules are extended to all poultry plants sometime in the future. Increased line speeds increase the risk of worker injuries, they argued, as many injuries in the plant involve accidents on the line.
While there is no timeline for when, or if, HIMP and its related poultry regulation will be expanded beyond the 30 pilot plants, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said this week that the Obama administration’s budget for fiscal 2015 provides less funding for the Food Safety and Inspection Service because of changes that will eliminate some poultry inspection jobs.
Meanwhile, poultry industry representatives have argued that the speed of the evisceration line has not been shown to have an impact on worker safety. In fact, the evisceration line – the second of three processing lines in a poultry plant – is mostly automated through the use of machines. The speed of the second processing line, which involves the majority of manual labor, will not be increased and therefore does not put workers at a heightened level of risk, said Tom Super, spokesman for the National Chicken Council.
According to data taken from the first 15 years of HIMP pilot programs, there is no evidence that line speeds for slaughter or evisceration of chicken increase the number of worker injuries that occur in the plant, Super said. Most manual labor, he said, is concentrated on the second processing line, where workers are cutting and deboning chicken for retail packaging, and which will not be subjected to increased line speeds.
“Worker safety is a very high priority for the industry,” Super told Food Safety News. “People are certainly our most important asset. We would never support any proposal that we thought would be detrimental to our workforce.”
But the groups representing worker interests are worried about increasing the speed of any lines. While the rate of worker injury rates for poultry plants has dramatically dropped in the past 20 years (from 22.7 injuries per 100 workers in 1994 down to 4.9 injuries in 2013), poultry plant injuries still rank slightly higher than the average factory worker injury rate (4.3 injuries per 100 workers in 2013).
The central source of injuries and complaints from poultry plant workers is the speed at which they have to work, said Tom Fritzsche, staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of several groups campaigning against increased line speeds.
“These people have jobs where they’re doing astronomically high numbers of repetitive motions – some of them requiring significant force,” Fritzche said. “These motions can cause long-term injuries that can make it impossible to work another job, or possibly even move in basic ways.”
Fritzsche said that his organization brought in a number of poultry plant workers to discuss injuries they sustained on the job. A woman working at a plant in Alabama developed debilitating carpal tunnel syndrome after 17 years of deboning chickens and was fired. Another woman in Mississippi developed arthritis in her shoulder after just three years on the job due to the rapid repetitive motions she performed for hours at a time, Fritzsche said.
“I think the USDA is absolutely in denial of the effect the speed of the line has on workers’ health,” he added.
The industry has a track record of continually improving worker safety, said the National Chicken Council’s Super. The 15 years of data from the HIMP pilot program prove that speeds of 175 birds per minute do not impact worker safety, he said, and, in fact, some European countries have maintained safe work environments with line speeds approaching 200 birds per minute.
The advocacy groups arguing against higher line speeds also say the act of increasing line speeds takes another jab at a workforce that is already exploited and vulnerable. That workforce is disproportionately composed of Latino and African-American workers, many of them immigrants who run up against language barrier problems, said Catherine Singley, manager of employment policy projects at the National Council of La Raza.
“We’re looking at this through a civil rights lens,” Singley said.
Fritzsche also voiced concern that, under HIMP rules, plant employees would be given more responsibility to monitor the quality of the birds, while inspectors would be moving more to roles that involve looking at microbial safety.
One of the most common complaints among a survey of poultry workers in Alabama, he said, was the fear of retaliation for bringing up problems in the plant. Workers reported not feeling comfortable stopping the line for quality concerns because they feared negative reactions from upper management for slowing production, Fritzsche said. One worker, he said, even reported once getting physically caught on the line and later being punished for using the emergency stop button to free himself.
“We’re concerned that if some workers are responsible for pointing out a carcass with feces on it, for instance, they may feel like they’re under pressure not to slow down the line to take care of the problem,” he said.
As far as the new employee roles affecting food safety inspection, they don’t, according to Ashley Peterson, Ph.D., vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs at the National Chicken Council.
Inspectors will still be required on every poultry processing line looking at every bird, she said. It’s true that inspectors will be turning their focus more toward microbial testing, but it’s still the law to have an inspector reviewing each bird.
Asked if the increased line speeds for slaughter and evisceration would create a bottleneck on the second processing line where the speeds will remain the same, Peterson said that plants may add additional second processing lines to account for the faster slaughter and evisceration, but workers are not asked to work faster on the second processing line.
Super added that the speed of the lines will ultimately be determined by economics. Plants will process as many birds as consumers will eat, and plants are not required to operate lines at 175 birds per minute.
Ultimately, Super said, the industry and USDA had both workers and consumers in mind when making the new rules, which are the first update to those created in the 1950s, when the industry looked nothing like it does today.
“I don’t think the USDA would put forth a proposal that they thought would be detrimental to the workforce, much less consumers,” Super said.© Food Safety News