USDA: What’s up with your “for the birds” food processing legislation?

September 16th, 2013 by Julie Ferguson

Chickens have been a hot potato on the legislative circuit lately — well, the processing of chickens, that is. Even if you thought you had absolutely no interest in poultry processing, if consuming tasty chicken is something you enjoy, you may want to know about these laws. We’re wondering what’s up with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) – could there be something in the water?
Elizabeth Grossman of The Pump Handle offers the lowdown on one of those laws in her post Hazards behind a chicken dinner: US poultry workers ask USDA and OSHA to protect their safety. Last year, about a half million poultry workers processed about 8 billion chickens, many handling about 100 birds a minute. Now a rate like that is pretty amusing when you see Lucille Ball on a chocolate packing assembly line in the old sitcoms, but it’s a little less comical for workers wielding sharp knives while “standing in chilled processing plant facilities, cutting, gutting, scalding, defeathering and hanging birds as they speed by on automated machinery.”
But as Grossman notes, this apparently isn’t fast enough:

“If a rule proposed by USDA and supported by the poultry industry is finalized and goes into effect, the speed at which chickens and other poultry are typically processed could increase to as much as 175 birds per minute – a rate at which some plants are already operating.”

And one more thing:

“The proposed USDA rule would change the way poultry processing plant inspections work. It would shift the inspection process to one in which individual companies set inspection guidelines for their own plants.”

Now that’s not good for the workers, who are already plagued with notoriously poor working conditions and an injury rate that is about twice the national average (see also Unsafe at These Speeds) — it doesn’t sound too propitious for consumer quality, either. We’ll forgo the fox guarding the hen-house analogies and simply pose the radical idea that guidelines set by profit-driven companies may not always be in the interests of the greater good in an era that is flirting with drug-resistant Salmonella and other super pathogens.
It hasn’t worked so well in pilot programs in pork plants: See Kimberly Kindy’s Washington Post article: USDA Pilot Program fails to stop contaminated meat. Her article notes:

“Auditors from the inspector general’s office found that three of the five plants in the pilot program had racked up scores of health and safety violations, many of them for problems that were never fixed. The report did not identify the five plants and said that, since no study had been done, it was difficult to determine if contamination and other deficiencies could be attributed directly to the inspection system.

But the auditors pointed out that the safety records at the three most-troubled pilot plants were worse than those at hundreds of other U.S. swine plants that continued to operate under the traditional system, which features slower processing speeds and about double the number of government inspectors.”

But wait, there’s more. If you care about poultry workers and or food safety — pick one or both (although we see them as issues that are inextricably linked) — the news gets even worse.
Wired reports: USDA: Chicken Processed in China Can be Sold in the US Without Labels to Say So. So in addition to increasing US worker output, USDA now allows for off-shoring some of the chicken processing jobs to the wonderful folks that produced glow-in-the-dark pork. Do you trust your kids chicken nuggets to be processed by the country that produced these rather alarming food products? Of ocurse, you’ll have no way of knowing because these processed meats won’t be subject to Country Of Origin Labeling (COOL) the way that fresh meats are.
For now, the chickens will be bred, raised and slaughtered in the US and China will only be doing the processing. Note the key phrase “for now” – many industry insiders expect that this is a prelude to allowing China to export domestically raised chickens to the US.
Additional info
NIOSH study finds widespread carpal tunnel among poultry workers, underscores why Poultry Rule is a bad idea
OSHA: Poultry Processing

Will you know when your chicken was processed in China?
Your chicken nuggets may soon come from China

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