WASHINGTON If the Obama administration gives the green light, soon fewer federal inspectors will be present in poultry processing plants, and the lines will be allowed to speed up, a change that critics say could be risky for both food and worker safety.
Poultry is a $13 billion industry in North Carolina, and Kay Hagan, the state’s Democratic senator, supports the changes and has urged Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to make them final. The state’s other senator, Republican Richard Burr, has not taken a position.
By law, an inspector must check each poultry carcass for defects and visible contamination. The new plan would replace most federal inspectors on poultry processing lines with company workers who would watch for defects as chicken and turkey carcasses zip through. The move would mean more control over the inspection process for companies, enabling them to increase profits by processing birds faster.
Worker advocates say allowing the lines to move any faster would exacerbate the already serious problem of hand, wrist and other injuries caused by repetitive motions. And food safety groups say that the federal government has yet to prove that the new inspection system would reduce the bacteria responsible for most food-borne illnesses.
Supporters counter that reliance on federal inspectors to look at each carcass for defects is outdated. A test program using plant employees for much of the quality control process has been under way since 1999. The program is now used in 19 chicken and five turkey plants, including the Butterball turkey plant in Mount Olive.
“Our poultry slaughter inspection standards are out of date, and the updates I have called for, along with a bipartisan group of senators, are science-based and have been extensively tested through pilot programs,” Hagan said by email in response to questions about the proposed rule.
None of the plants where the proposed new inspection system has been tested has been linked to major illnesses, she said, nor do Department of Labor statistics show an increase in worker injuries.
“Data ... has shown not only for food safety, but also worker safety that these plants are on par or performing better than those in the traditional inspection system,” said Tom Super, vice president for communications at the National Chicken Council, the trade association for the chicken industry.
In a letter to Vilsack signed by 12 other Democrats and Republicans, Hagan argued that the rule change would reduce the number of food-borne illnesses and save taxpayers money.
Burr did not sign the letter but has requested that the USDA tell the poultry industry when the rule would be sent for a final White House review and implemented.
175 birds per minute
Under the proposed changes, companies could speed up the chicken processing lines to 175 birds per minute from a maximum of 140 now. The current rate is based on 35 birds per minute per federal unionized inspector, so four inspectors are needed for the maximum speed. Inspectors check for feces, feathers and visible defects.
The proposed rule contains no requirement that company inspectors be trained. The USDA would offer training guidance, but plant operators would be free to decide how to train their quality-control inspectors. A single federal inspector would be stationed at the end of the line for final checks. Others would be reassigned to different duties within the plant. Some would lose their jobs.
The USDA estimated that the new rule would allow 6 percent more chickens and turkeys to be processed without adding workers, leading to economic benefits of $260 million, or 3 cents per bird.
The proposed inspection changes have been pending since January 2012. Opponents say they recently got word that they could soon be on a fast track for final approval, possibly by mid-February.
The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service “has found no evidence to suggest that worker safety would be impacted by the proposed rule,” said Cathy Cochran, a spokeswoman for the service. “In fact, the safety record in all poultry plants over the past 20 years has improved dramatically.”
Critics argue that the numbers aren’t solid. Injury statistics are based entirely on what employers report to the federal government, said Celeste Monforton, a science blogger and lecturer at the George Washington University School of Public Health & Health Services.
Many studies have found that employers don’t report all injuries as they should, nor do workers because they’re afraid of being fired, she said.
A 2008 Charlotte Observer series about working conditions in the poultry industry found that federal safety reports based on the companies’ self-reported data showed that working at a poultry plant was safer than working in a toy store.
Workers told a different story. Basilio Castro, who worked at the Case Farms chicken plant in Morganton in 2004 and 2005, experienced throbbing in his hands, shoulder and back from making thousands of cuts in the plant all day.
“It wouldn’t let you sleep,” he said in a recent interview.
Now an organizer at the Western North Carolina Worker Center, Castro meets regularly with workers suffering all types of musculoskeletal problems.
“They tell me, ‘We have to endure because we don’t have another way to work in this country,’ ” he said.
‘Handing the industry this gift’
Hagan said of the proposed rule that she was “confident that adequate protections are in place as poultry lines move faster.” The USDA’s own peer-reviewed assessment found that the new inspection system would prevent 5,000 cases of food-borne illness per year.
But the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, said in a report in August that the USDA was going ahead without proper data collection and evaluation needed to prove that food safety would be improved.
Tony Corbo, a senior lobbyist at Food & Water Watch, a food safety advocacy group, questioned the legitimacy of the USDA assessment because the industry contributes money and has influence at the land-grant universities where the reviewers are based.
In addition, like so many other interests with a stake in Washington oversight, the poultry industry supports lawmakers by contributing to their campaigns.
Hagan, who is running this year for a second term in the U.S. Senate, has received $12,000 so far in the 2014 campaign cycle from the industry, including $8,000 from the National Turkey Federation. North Carolina is the No. 2 turkey-producing state.
The Agriculture Department already has no legal authority to close a plant because of excessive levels of toxic bacteria, such as salmonella. Critics say the proposed inspection changes would be another instance of reining in government oversight of private industry.
“For the Obama administration not to take the initiative and go to Congress for the additional authority, it’s mind boggling to us,” said Corbo. “Instead, it’s handing the industry this gift.”
The role of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which oversees workplace safety, is limited as well. “There are currently no specific OSHA standards for poultry processing,” the agency notes on its website.
Franco Ordonez of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed.
Schoof: 202-383-6004; Twitter: reneeschoof
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