Watchdog decries 'systematic exploitation' in poultry plants

“The hard-working people who produce our food should be protected from dangerous conditions that lead to avoidable injuries,” said Tom Fritzsche, a SPLC attorney and author of the report. “The current system may be profitable for the poultry companies, but it relies on systematic exploitation of workers. Now, regulators are about to make conditions even more hazardous.”

The proposal, which could be finalized in April, will also cut the number of federal inspectors responsible for checking meat quality.

Tom Super, the vice president of communications for the National Chicken Council, said that the organization “and our member companies take very seriously the health and safety of our workers.”

The USDA proposals to speed up lines in poultry plants are grounded in a 14-year pilot program in 20 chicken plants, Super said. The data “has been studied, debated and reviewed thoroughly to determine the most effective way to modernize the system.”

“It’s unfortunate that the claims raised in this report are simply not grounded in facts, especially as they relate to USDA’s proposal to modernize poultry inspection,” he told The Hill. “The fact is that line speeds must be approved by the [USDA], whose inspectors are present continuously in plants that slaughter poultry. The inspectors have the ability to slow down or stop the line.”

But more than consumer safety is at risk, according to the report.

Of the more than 300 interviews conducted, 72 percent of participants reported having “significant” work-related injury or illness.

Poultry plant workers reported seeing people fired or threatened over complaining about the speed of the line and 12 percent of respondents said plant bosses sped up the conveyor belt.

The repetitive motion of folding wings into a twisted shape, cutting meat with dull knives and hanging birds up causes carpal tunnel syndrome and other muscular disorders, the report says.

One worker explained having to fold 40 wings per minute – or 18,000 per day.

And the study claims injuries are caused by belt speeds that are already too fast: Seventy-eight percent of workers blame the rate they’re required to inspect and work on chicken as the reason for injury.

The National Chicken Council counters that there is no proof “that increased line speeds will increase injuries. In fact, those employees working in second processing, such as cutters and de-boners, would not be affected at all,” says Super.

“Line speeds in those areas would not be increased as a result of this program. The rule would affect first processing and evisceration, which today are largely automated.”

The 56-page SPLC report chronicles the personal stories of plant workers, who describe being denied bathroom breaks and prescribed Band-Aids for cuts received on the job, which would quickly fall off and the cuts would become infected from the raw meat.

Employees could faint and only receive 30 minutes of rest before returning to work. Others may choose to wear yesterday’s blood-spattered aprons instead of paying supervisors for new ones daily. So-called “chicken water” that contains “chemicals and waste” from all over the plant has been known to turn fingernails black, and ultimately fall off, the study found.

There are very little Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulatory protections for these workers, including the inability for workers to sue their employees.

“Without the threat of strong penalties for willful OSHA violations, the agency is unlikely to promote any real change. Without proper enforcement mechanisms, OSHA efforts cannot lead to safer workplaces,” the report reads.

Even when federal regulators get involved, plant workers’ safety didn’t always improve.

Following an OSHA inspection, several workers complained that conditions became less safe, SPLC said.

“That’s because the company had slowed the processing line while OSHA officers were in the plant. Once inspectors left, the line speed was increased beyond its usual rapid pace to make up for the lost production,” it continued.

The report concludes with recommendations for regulators and state and federal level lawmakers that would strengthen the food inspection system, workers’ safety and whistle-blowing privileges.

“It is the responsibility of policymakers to protect the hard-working people who produce our nation’s food,” SPLC finishes. “The current system may provide greater profits to the nation’s large poultry companies, but it relies on systematic exploitation of workers. It must be reformed.”

The National Chicken Council still stands by the USDA’s proposed rule.

“NCC is confident that modernizing the poultry inspection system will not endanger our workforce,” Super said. Whether plants are operating in the pilot project or under traditional inspection, the chicken industry continues to improve its record for the health and wellness of its workforce, decreasing its injury and illness rate 74 percent since 1994.”