WASHINGTON — It appears the Agriculture Department’s controversial plan to create faster line speeds in poultry processing plants has hit another snag. On Monday, 68 members of Congress — nearly all Democrats — signed a letter to Secretary Tom Vilsack asking that he scrap the proposal until the agency has addressed all the concerns raised by public health and labor groups.
“While we strongly support modernizing our food safety system and making it more efficient, modernization should not occur at the expense of public health, worker safety, or animal welfare,” the House lawmakers wrote. “We therefore harbor serious concerns over what we believe are the [agency's] inadequate considerations to date of these issues in promulgating this rule.”
The White House and the Agriculture Department have been moving forward with a plan that would remove many of the Food Safety Inspection Service inspectors who examine chickens for defects off the production line in poultry plants. That would leave much of the inspection duties to the poultry companies themselves, while also raising the cap on how many birds per minute can move down the line.
The Agriculture Department has said it simply wants to modernize the inspection process by allowing the remaining inspectors to focus instead on unseen dangers like bacteria; by expanding a pilot program already in place, the move would phase out an estimated 800 inspection jobs and save roughly $95 million over three years, according to the department. Not surprisingly, the poultry lobby enthusiastically backs the proposal.
But public health groups say the move would diminish inspections and endanger consumers. Meanwhile, advocates for poultry workers say the faster line speeds would make an already frantic pace even worse, possibly increasing the already high incidence of occupational health hazards like the painful hand-and-arm condition known as carpal tunnel syndrome.
The letter from members of Congress cited the 42,000 cases of salmonellosis reported each year by the Centers for Disease Control. “[I]t is unclear whether FSIS’s poultry slaughter proposal will actually reduce illness rates; in fact, there is evidence that rates may increase,” the lawmakers wrote. “The lack of good data raises substantial uncertainty in the agency’s assessment.”
The letter also cited the already high injury rates suffered by poultry workers due to repetitive motions, and wondered if the new rule would exacerbate those problems. “Poultry slaughterhouse workers in particular perform one of the most dangerous jobs in the nation,” lawmakers wrote. “Production line speed is a leading cause of unacceptably high levels of worker injuries in the poultry industry.”
Last year the Government Accountability Office released a report that found the Agriculture Department’s proposal was based on bad data. In analyzing the effects of expanding the pilot program, the agency relied on data that was more than a decade old. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who requested the report, said the GAO’s findings proved that the USDA’s poultry proposal was “not formulated on a strong scientific basis.”
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, poultry workers suffer injuries at a rate at least twice as high as the general workforce. As HuffPost reported last year, a recent government study of workers at a poultry plant in South Carolina found that a whopping 4 out of 10 showed signs of carpal tunnel syndrome.