Calls by congressman for faster poultry line speed put him on the wrong side of history


I would like to take the opportunity to respond to Rep. Doug Collins’s (R-Ga.) Op-Ed on Sept. 27, “Liberals shun science, defy Obama in poultry production.”

I led House Democrats in a letter to Sonny Perdue, secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, demanding that the agency not propose a rule that would increase line speeds to the industry-preferred 175 birds per minute (bpm), or roughly 3 birds per second.

{mosads}I did not do so to “demonize economics” as Rep. Collins so creatively put it. Rather, I spoke up to raise my deep worker safety and food safety concerns.

The poultry industry is dangerous enough without increased line speeds. Rep. Collins makes the argument that because these line speed increases would take place in first processing, where birds are inspected for food safety purposes, rather than in second processing, where birds are cut and separated, worker safety would not be compromised. This point demonstrates Rep. Collins’ relatively myopic view of what worker safety means, though I appreciate the impulse behind his patronizing geography lesson.

Even at the current speed of 140 birds per minute, a single USDA inspector is checking 2.33 birds every second. In their relentless pursuit of profit, these corporations rarely stop the line or even slow it down—leaving workers making tens of thousands of repetitive motions each day. Tell the mother who cannot lift her child because of the pain in her wrists and shoulders that her injuries don’t count because they weren’t caused by a paring knife.

I take issue with the claim that injury and illness rates have been dropping steadily since 1994. It is a favorite statistic of industry as well—yet OSHA, the GAO, and others have found time and again that plants deliberately underreport injuries. In fact, up to two thirds of injuries may go unreported. In 2002, a change to OSHA form 300 eliminated reporting for musculoskeletal disorders—immediately and artificially lowering the incident rate. This is one of the main types of injuries caused on the poultry line.

Rep. Collins failed to mention that the poultry industry has the twelfth highest number of reported work related amputations and hospitalizations of any industry in this country—more than the saw mill industry and construction. According the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, poultry workers face unsafe work environments and steep injury rates at almost fifty percent above the national average. Workers in poultry plants also become ill at rates seven times higher than all other industries.

But let’s just look at poultry plants in his home state of Georgia: in just the first half of 2015, the OSHA database shows finger and limb amputations, hospitalizations, fractured legs, and other serious injuries. Pilgrim’s Pride, in Rep. Collins’ district, has one of the highest incidence of reported severe injuries of any company reporting to the federal government.

Turning from worker safety to food safety, Rep. Collins favorably mentions Brazilian chicken production—bemoaning the fact that in 2010, Brazil outpaced the U.S. as the world’s leading poultry broiler meat exporter. Brazil’s poultry industry has been plagued with worker and food safety issues. Just this month, a Brazilian poultry worker fell into a processing machine. And bacteria-contaminated Brazilian poultry caused the largest recall of chicken products across Europe in the last 15 years.  The European Union and even China reduced their importation from Brazil amidst this crisis.

Brazil does not export chicken to the United States, because its poultry inspection system has been deemed inadequate and not equivalent to our system. There’s an old saying: “Fast, good or cheap: pick two.” When it comes to food we put in front of our children and families, Brazil has chosen fast and cheap—with disturbing and dangerous consequences.

My colleague cites an unnamed “landmark” study as proof that higher line speeds meet Food Safety and Inspection Service standards. It seems that he is referring to the HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project pilot program, which allowed a small number of plants to increase line speeds. This study has been criticized for its small sample size and incomplete conclusions. Even the Government Accountability Office found that “USDA has not thoroughly evaluated the performance of each of the pilot projects.”

On a personal note, the congressman from Georgia’s op-ed repeatedly accused me, my colleagues, and labor advocates of “shunning science,” “ignoring biology,” “scutt[ling] a broad range of scientific disciplines,” and “walk[ing] a road so extreme and so hostile to empirical evidence.”

I take those accusations seriously—and I find them puzzling coming from a man who is skeptical of climate change and has voted to undermine the EPA and exclude the regulation of greenhouse gases. I wish the congressman would show the same reverence for science when the future of our planet is on the line, not just corporate profit in his district.

Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. And those who promote corporate profit over the health and safety of hardworking Americans should not be surprised to find themselves on the wrong side of history.

DeLauro represents Connecticut’s 3rd District and is the Labor-HHS Appropriations ranking member.

Tags Sonny Perdue

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