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This Thanksgiving, Remember that Safe Food Begins with Safe Workplaces

Guest Blog by Catherine Singley, Senior Policy Analyst, National Council of La Raza (NCLR)

This year, President Obama will carry out the tradition of pardoning the White House Thanksgiving turkey. Indeed, for most of us, the Thanksgiving turkey is the centerpiece of this quintessentially American tradition. That’s why Americans consumers should be alarmed to learn that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for ensuring the safety of meat and poultry products, is pursuing a regulatory change that would put consumers and food workers in harm’s way. Under the auspices of improving food safety, USDA’s proposed rule would actually pull government inspectors off of poultry processing lines and allow companies to speed up their production lines.

USDA’s proposed inspection model would allow production line speed to increase from 32 turkeys to 55 turkeys per minute (a 72% increase). In chicken plants, the speed would increase from 140 to 175 birds per minute (a 25% increase). That’s about one-third of a second to inspect each bird.

Ultimately, safe food starts with safe workplaces. Yet faster line speeds would have devastating effects for the safety and health of workers who slaughter, trim, cut, and package poultry. Already, poultry workers suffer alarming rates of injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome because of the highly repetitive and strenuous nature of their work. A recent study by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that 77% of poultry workers experience traumatic disorders in their hands and wrists, leaving many permanently unable to work or perform basic tasks like grip a glass of water. Despite the clear link between line speed and worker injuries, the proposed USDA rule contains no worker protections. The U.S. Department of Labor, which is responsible for worker safety and health, does not regulate production line speed.

If this rule is to go forward, the harm would fall disproportionately on communities of color and women, who make up the majority of the poultry processing workforce. In many places throughout the country, poultry and meatpacking is the only job in town available to immigrant workers and those with lower education levels. Injuries in poultry and meatpacking industries are vastly underreported in official counts due to workers’ fear of employer retaliation. Faster line speeds would expose these vulnerable workers to even more dangerous conditions, with potentially life-altering consequences.

Clearly, USDA’s proposed regulation fails to account for very real costs to consumer and worker safety. That’s why NCLR and our partners are urging Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to abandon his plans to speed up production lines in this hazardous industry and to work together with Secretary of Labor Tom Perez to pursue enforceable labor protections in poultry and meatpacking.

On November 21, 2013, we held a press conference with a turkey processing worker, a retired USDA inspector, and representatives of from the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and Food & Water Watch. You can listen to the press conference in full here and learn more by viewing the presentation here.

Editor's Note: You can help! Before you sit down to your Thanksgiving dinner, take a minute to tweet at Secretary of Labor Tom Perez to work with the USDA to make the poultry industry safer. Using the hashtag #PardonMe, tweet at the USDA and urge them to not speed up poultry processing lines.

* Photo by Earl Dotter