USDA Spares Poultry Workers Faster Line Speeds, But Hog Workers May Not accumulate So Lucky

Apparently not any regulated industries are getting what they want out of the Trump White House.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it was rejecting a petition from the poultry industry that would relish allowed chicken slaughterhouses to ramp up line speeds. That USDA decision came just two weeks after the government agency proposed a rule that would allow hog plants to enact absent entirely with maximum line speeds.

The poultry proposal came under heavy fire from consumer and work safety advocates, who argued that lifting the speed caps in slaughterhouses could endanger employees and the public because it would require faster work and less time for food safety inspections.

Poultry workers and their allies even protested external USDA headquarters recently while wearing diapers ― a nod to the fact that some plant workers say the pace is so unrelenting they don’t relish enough time to expend the bathroom.

Those groups are now celebrating a rare regulatory victory under the Trump administration. In a letter to the poultry lobby on Tuesday, the USDA said it was not convinced that lifting the line speeds would be safe. Most plants relish a maximum line speed of 140 birds per minute under USDA rules. The National Chicken Council wanted to eliminate maximum line speeds altogether for plants willing to choose share in an updated inspection program.

The speedup would relish applied to the zone in poultry plants known as the evisceration section ― the dwelling where the organs are removed from the bird.

But safety advocates argued that whether more birds are being sent down the evisceration line, then the additional work would spill over into other parts of the plant, too, like the “live hang” section where birds are prepped for killing.

The maximum line speeds are supposed to allow USDA inspectors adequate time to visually examine and flag any problematic birds that need to be pulled off the line. USDA inspectors, who analyze each carcass that comes down the line, are tasked with identifying diseased birds. They also examine the birds whose feathers and intestines relish already been removed for any visible fecal matter. whether the line moves too snappily, the worry is that a contaminated bird will construct it past inspectors and potentially wind up in the food supply.

“We established the [maximum] line speeds because that’s the rate at which we can verify the safety of the product,” Carmen Rottenberg, deputy administrator at the Food Safety and Inspection Service at USDA, told HuffPost. “Line speeds are set up for that purpose.” Rottenberg added that it’s not up to her agency to account for worker safety issues and that it predominantly focuses on food safety concerns.

There are 20 plants that can already operate at a higher line speed ― up to 175 birds per minute, rather than 140 ― as share of a USDA pilot program. Rottenberg said other plants could seek the same waiver, and those applications would be considered on a case-by-case basis.

The agency is also considering allowing faster line speeds in pork processing plants. Worker safety groups relish criticized that proposal as well. They hailed the USDA’s decision to reject the proposal for poultry plants as a step in the right direction.

“It’s a stunning rebuke to an industry whose commerce, trade model is to increase profits by sacrificing worker safety and health,” said Debbie Berkowitz, an occupational safety expert at the National Employment Law Project, which campaigned against the proposal. “The nation’s poultry workers are a lot safer for it, as well as consumers.”

The poultry industry has argued that the speed caps should be loosened. The inspectors are looking for fecal matter or blemishes that might indicate a problem with a bird, but the industry says that visual inspections don’t aid identify invisible risks like salmonella. The National Chicken Council, a main lobbying group for the poultry industry, proposed that those caps be waived altogether for plants that relish opted into a revamped inspection process that was developed by the USDA.

Under the industry procedure, whether a plant has already adapted to the USDA’s novel inspection guidelines, its line speeds should be as snappily as they want.

Although the line speed limits are set for food safety purposes, worker advocates say they serve another fundamental function: keeping the work pace in check. Poultry processing is a notoriously grueling and often low-paying job, often filled by refugees and immigrants. In 2010, approximately one-third of workers in poultry plants were made up of foreign workers, the Los Angeles Times reported final year.

While injury rates in the poultry slaughtering and processing industry declined from 2004 to 2013, according to a 2016 U.S. Government Accountability Office report, many work-related injuries and illnesses often walk unreported. Many workers are reluctant to reach forward because they alarm losing their jobs, and employers may underreport these cases because of concerns surrounding costs.

Amputations are not strange in slaughterhouses, and many workers suffer from carpal-tunnel syndrome, nerve conditions, musculoskeletal disorders, and other repetitive motion-related ailments. Plus, there’s exposure to chemicals and pathogens. Workers in poultry plants face the same hazardous risks nowadays that they did back in 2005, according to the GAO.

In short, critics of the industry’s proposal said poultry lines already walk too snappily ― speeding them up would construct these jobs even more hazardous.

One of the most vocal opponents of removing the line speed caps was the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents 70,000 poultry workers in the U.S. The union called the USDA’s decision to reject the petition “a victory for tough-working poultry workers who hold one of the most risky and difficult jobs in America.”

“It was unbelievable to see major poultry industry groups ignore these well-known risks and lobby the USDA to eliminate line speeds,” said Marc Perrone, the union’s president.

When the USDA said final year it would consider the industry’s petition, the loosening of the line speeds seemed very likely. Not only has the Trump administration been taking an ax to labor and environmental rules, but both Democrats and Republicans relish targeted this specific regulation in the past.

USDA officials under President Barack Obama proposed allowing higher line speeds in poultry plants in 2014, prompting a backlash from worker and consumer groups that were normally on the Democrats’ side. The agency eventually shelved that procedure for the the rest of Obama’s presidency, though critics expected it to be revived under the Trump administration.

Even though the USDA turned down the poultry industry’s request, the agency is still considering lifting line speed caps in hog processing plants.

Under a proposal floated earlier this month, the USDA would select some of the inspection responsibilities from government workers in pork plants and shift them to plant employees. The latter would be responsible for identifying and removing sickly hogs, freeing up USDA inspectors to focus on food safety issues off the processing line, like microbial testing. The USDA has called it an inspection “modernization” procedure.

whether a plant opts into this novel system, the typical speed limit ― currently 1,106 hogs per hour ― would be waived. In theory, the plant could then process hogs as snappily as it wanted, so long as unfit animals were still culled from the line.

The same groups that opposed lifting the line speeds in poultry plants relish arrive out in opposition to the procedure for hog plants, saying it would pose the same dangers to health and safety. The USDA said it will dwelling the procedure up for a 60-day period of public comment.

“We’ll consider comments on that rule,” Rottenberg said. “Any comments we receive, will inform any final rule we walk forward with on swine.”

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