By Catherine Singley, NCLR Economic Policy Project
The bitter cold temperatures in Washington this week didn’t deter a delegation of poultry workers from the warm states of North Carolina, Mississippi, and Arkansas from traveling to the nation’s capital. They had a message to deliver to decision makers: stop a government proposal that would endanger the health and safety of poultry workers by speeding up production lines in American poultry processing facilities. Yesterday, workers held a press conference on Capitol Hill with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, NCLR, the Southern Poverty Law Center, NAACP, Oxfam American, Food and Water Watch, and others, to describe the debilitating injuries they’ve suffered at work and to call on the Administration to halt a proposal that would make a bad situation worse.
The proposed rule change comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the federal agency responsible for ensuring the safety of meat and poultry products. If the rule is finalized, poultry companies would be allowed to speed up production from 140 to 175 birds per minute—a 25% speed up—that would lead to more injuries in poultry plants. Many injuries are linked to the repetitive nature of poultry processing; workers can make up to 20,000 cutting or pulling motions a day. As a result, poultry workers already experience high rates of traumatic injuries to their hands, wrists, and arms.
Why the line speed increase? It’s included in the proposed rule as an economic incentive for companies to produce more chicken in exchange for adopting new food safety inspection measures (the basis of which has been heavily criticized by consumer advocates and the Government Accountability Office).
Not surprisingly, most of the debate about this proposal has been about the food safety benefits—or lack thereof—that would result if the rule is finalized. It’s understandable that the public wants to know that their food is safe and it’s USDA’s job to assure that it is.
For everyone who is concerned about what’s in their meat, Bacilio Castro, from the North Carolina Worker Justice Center, had an answer:
“You want to know what’s in the chicken on your plate? Tears. Tears of the mothers who can’t lift their children because of the pain in their wrists and shoulders from working on the line. We are not asking you to stop eating chicken. We are simply asking to be treated as human beings and not as animals.”