Friday, January 17, 2014

Charlotte Observer examines arguments for and against faster poultry processing lines

In October, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed faster poultry processing lines, a move that critics argue could cause animals to be inhumanely killed, injure more workers and weaken safety measures, flaws in which were blamed for a salmonella outbreak last year. In a story for the Charlotte Observer, Renee Schoof takes a look at how the proposal could affect North Carolina, where poultry is a $13 billion industry. (Observer photo by John Simmons)

Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), who has already received $14,000 from the industry in her re-election bid, supports the changes, which "would replace most federal inspectors on poultry processing lines with company workers who would watch for defects as chicken and turkey carcasses zip through," Schoof writes. "The move would mean more control over the inspection process for companies, enabling them to increase profits by processing birds faster. Hagan argued that the rule change would reduce the number of food-borne illnesses and save taxpayers money." A test program that uses plant employees for most of the quality control processes has been used in the state since 1999, and is currently used in 19 chicken and five turkey plants.

Under current rules, chicken processing lines are limited to a maximum of 140 birds per minute; the proposed maximum is 175 birds per minute. "The proposed rule contains no requirement that company inspectors be trained. The USDA would offer training guidance, but plant operators would be free to decide how to train their quality-control inspectors. A single federal inspector would be stationed at the end of the line for final checks. Others would be reassigned to different duties within the plant. Some would lose their jobs. The USDA estimated that the new rule would allow 6 percent more chickens and turkeys to be processed without adding workers, leading to economic benefits of $260 million, or 3 cents per bird."

Schoof writes, "Worker advocates say allowing the lines to move any faster would exacerbate the already serious problem of hand, wrist and other injuries caused by repetitive motions. And food-safety groups say that the federal government has yet to prove that the new inspection system would reduce the bacteria responsible for most food-borne illnesses." Basilio Castro, "who worked at the Case Farms chicken plant in Morganton in 2004 and 2005, experienced throbbing in his hands, shoulder and back from making thousands of cuts in the plant all day." He said in an interview, “It wouldn’t let you sleep.” (Read more)

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