Secretary Vilsack, Don’t Count Your Chickens

By Catherine Singley, Senior Policy Analyst, Economic and Employment Policy Project, NCLRPoultry workers

One way that President Obama’s 2014 budget proposal saves money is by implementing a new system to reduce the number of federal inspectors in poultry processing plants nationwide.  It is puzzling that the budget treats a proposed rule on poultry inspection from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as a done deal; meanwhile, at USDA’s budget briefing last week, Secretary Vilsack indicated that he is still working on the rule.  The budget’s de facto endorsement of the rule turns a blind eye to the deep concern of a broad coalition of civil rights, public health, labor, and consumer protection groups, including NCLR, that the rule would endanger the health and safety of workers who slaughter, process, and package chicken.

USDA’s proposed rule would allow poultry plants to increase their production line speed from 140 birds per minute to 175 in exchange for implementing a new food safety inspection process.  Fast line speed is already a major cause of high injury rates among poultry workers; in a recent study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, 72 percent of poultry workers had suffered a job-related injury or illness.

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Workers of color, immigrants, and women are overrepresented in the poultry processing workforce and are likely to bear a disproportionate share of negative health impacts that result from this proposed rule.  About 34 percent of poultry workers are Latino, which is more than twice Latinos’ share of the overall workforce.  Among the most vocal opponents of the proposed rule are federal inspectors themselves, like Phyllis McKelvey, who spent 44 years in the poultry industry and is intimately familiar with the working conditions and the disincentives to reporting injuries on the job.  Despite these warnings, USDA’s proposed rule offers no plan of action to mitigate the expected rise in workplace injuries that would result from faster line speeds.

NCLR has repeatedly implored USDA to withdraw the poultry rule until the agency develops a comprehensive plan to mitigate the serious concerns about line speed and injuries.  For the sake of a healthy and productive workforce, Secretary Vilsack would be wise to not count his chickens before they hatch.

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