Consumer and labor activists are staging a White House protest this afternoon over a federal proposal to replace inspectors at poultry factories, which they charge will mean more injured workers -- and more chicken poop on Americans’ dinner plates.
“This is a gift to the industry,” said Food & Water Watch senior lobbyist Tony Corbo, who’s been fighting the proposed regulatory change since it was first floated under the Clinton administration. “The Obama administration has not hidden the fact that based on their analysis, over a three-year period the government is going to save $90 million by eliminating some 800 positions in these poultry factories,” and industry coffers are “going to increase on an annual average of $260 million, because they’re going to be able to put more product in the choppers.”
The White House and USDA did not respond to early morning requests for comment. In a press release announcing the formal introduction of the proposed rule change last year, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said, “The new inspection system will reduce the risk of airborne illness by focusing [Food Safety and Inspection Service] inspection activities on those tasks that advance our core mission of food safety. By revising current procedures and removing outdated regulatory requirements that do not help combat foodborne illness, the result will be a more efficient and effective use of taxpayer dollars.”
A Government Accountability Office study released this month found “questions about the validity” of USDA’s conclusion that the new approach would better prevent the spread of salmonella. Critics charge that by replacing most USDA inspectors at chicken plants with company employees, the USDA plan would increase health risks for Americans who eat chicken, and that by increasing (to 175) the number of chickens that can move down the line each minute, the administration is guaranteeing more workers will be permanently injured.
Rather than each USDA inspector checking 35 birds a minute, said Corbo, under the proposed change a USDA inspector at the end of the line would be checking three per second. “I don’t care how good you are,” said Corbo. “You’re not going to see anything.” Corbo told Salon that company-paid inspectors would lack the training of USDA inspectors, and he said that data from a Freedom of Information Act request showed that in plants that were piloting the proposed change, “the company-paid employees were missing a lot of the so-called ‘defects,’ including visible fecal contamination on the carcasses.”
“Poultry is an extremely dangerous occupation, one of the most dangerous occupations in the U.S. …” said Anne Janks, an organizer with Interfaith Worker Justice. “You increase the speed, and you’re going to have more injuries.” Janks added that what could be “most devastating” to workers wasn’t the additional at-work amputations, but the long-term effects of stepped-up repetitive motion and chemical use.
Janks told Salon that workers at factories where the new rule was being piloted were already reporting instead skin and breathing issues due to increased use of chemicals to replace more stringent inspections. “Instead of inspecting and trying to remove contamination, it’s just, we’re going to assume contamination and use chemicals on every bird …” said Janks. “It may mask the presence of E. coli or salmonella without eradicating it” before it reaches consumers.
“The White House and USDA,” said Janks, “have just ignored everybody.”