By Kevin Bogardus - 04/27/12 12:12 AM EDT
A proposed rule by the Agriculture Department (USDA) that would speed up inspections at poultry processing plants has enraged unions.
Chicken and turkey producers support the proposal, saying it could modernize outdated inspection procedures. But those in labor organizations are seeking to modify the rule, arguing it would shift too much responsibility over to plant owners and endanger the safety of the food and workers. Also at stake are up to 800 poultry inspector positions that could be affected by the new regulation.
“They are going to be able to make the determination on their own product. … There’s a dollar value attached here,” Painter said. “As an independent inspector, I’m concerned with what goes out to the consumer. With the plant, I’m concerned with what it’s going out the door to make me money.”
Painter is chairman of the American Federation of Government Employees’ (AFGE) National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals. AFGE, a federal worker union, has been one of the more vocal opponents of the proposal.
The union has helped organize protests outside USDA’s Washington headquarters — complete with a man dressed in a chicken suit — and joined with consumer groups and others in labor organizations to hand over close to 150,000 petitions to the department last week opposing changes to the inspection process.
AFGE also set up the website letthemeatchicken.com and created the Twitter account @KeepChickenSAFE to push the issue online.
Painter said food safety is his biggest concern from the proposal, but conceded union jobs could be under threat as well. Painter estimated that about 2,500 members of AFGE members are poultry inspectors.
When the USDA first proposed the rule in January, it listed a number of “budgetary effects” for the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), including a reduction of roughly 500 to 800 inspector positions.
“As a union official, I can’t say I’m not concerned about jobs. I am,” Painter said. “But as an inspector, I am concerned about the product. I want chicken. I still want to eat chicken for Sunday dinner.”
An FSIS spokesman said inspectors who lose their positions would be offered jobs elsewhere in the agency.
“We plan on offering all FSIS employees whose positions might be affected by this proposal another job within FSIS,” said Dirk Fillpot, a FSIS spokesman.
At issue is how to best improve food safety in poultry processing plants. FSIS argues the proposed rule brings the agency up to date with modern science from a visual inspection standard that’s been in place since the Eisenhower administration.
“Right now, we focus on visual inspections of birds, carcass by carcass, and we look for bumps and blemishes. Do these blemishes put Americans’ health at risk? No. But the unseen threats, Salmonella and Campylobacter, do,” FSIS Administrator Alfred Almanza wrote in an April 13 blog post on the Huffington Post.
The rule’s new line speed — 175 birds to be inspected per minute — has been in practice at 20 broiler plants in a 13-year pilot program, according to Almanza. Plant owners would likely take on more responsibility in visually inspecting poultry under the proposal, while inspectors would rely more on scientific tests.
The poultry industry has been supportive of the new rule — the National Chicken Council and the National Turkey Federation said the proposal would be an important step toward modernizing the inspection process.
“The inspector will be looking at the whole scientific system, not just a single bird,” said Lisa Picard, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the National Turkey Federation.
“Instead of four or five inspectors doing that, you are going to have one inspector looking at every single bird while other inspectors are taking samples, doing tests, looking at the environment. ... From our perspective, that will have a much bigger impact on public health,” Picard said.
Painter, with AFGE, disagreed, saying the proposal could put consumer health at risk. He estimated that under the current regulation, there were four poultry inspectors for every 140 birds that pass down an assembly line per minute. Under the proposed rule, that could change to one inspector for every 175 birds per minute, according to Painter.
“That’s not enough time to look inside in any carcass,” Painter said, noting that signs of disease and contamination are usually inside the carcass. “It’s not going to be humanly possible to look inside those things.”
Other unions are in an uproar over the proposed rule due to worries over poultry workers’ health with the increased production demands.
“We are urging USDA to halt this rule until we know the impact it will have on the safety of workers,” said Tim Schlittner, a spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW).
Schlittner said UFCW officials have told USDA that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health should conduct a study on how the proposed rule would affect worker safety. Then, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration should use that study to develop a safety standard for poultry workers.
UFCW represents more than 65,000 poultry workers, and Schlittner said many workers are already suffering from musculoskeletal disorders such as carpal tunnel from working at the current line speed.
“Our members are doing the grunt work on these lines every day and they are ones at risk of injury,” Schlittner said.
But Picard of the National Turkey Federation said a higher inspection rate would not endanger workers.
“There’s no indicator that employee safety is compromised at a higher rate. There’s no indication of that,” Picard said.
The rule’s comment period was slated to end this week. USDA, however, extended the comment period for another 30 days after it came under pressure from unions and consumer groups.