Every day, tens of thousands of workers stand shoulder-to-shoulder, often in frigid or scorching temperatures, at the nation’s poultry slaughtering plants as chickens race by at punishing speed, hanging upside down on metal hooks on the processing lines. Chicken is the country’s most prevalent meat, and it comes at a tremendous cost – to those who work on the lines and to the chickens, who receive no federal protection under the law.
The workplace injury record for those who labor in chicken slaughtering plants is an occupational safety scandal, as they endure debilitating pain and crippling injuries to their hands, along with musculoskeletal disorders and repetitive motion conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome.
Last week, more than 200,000 Americans joined with the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Congressional Black Caucus to protest the USDA’s proposals to reduce its inspector corps by some 40 percent, to hand off much of the oversight to the poultry companies themselves, and to allow an acceleration of the already blurring speed of the slaughtering lines. The General Accounting Office has contested the USDA’s claim that the proposal would reduce food-borne pathogens like Salmonella, a persistent problem in the nation’s chicken supply. I was pleased to see the coalition of interests – which includes the nation’s largest Latino advocacy group, the National Council for La Raza -- working hard to overcome a shameful proposal that’s being sold by the USDA to the public in the most Orwellian terms, as something that’s actually good for workers, consumers, and chickens.
A recent study of Alabama’s poultry industry, which produces more than one billion broilers (chickens killed for meat) a year, painted a grim picture in which some three-quarters of workers surveyed reported suffering significant work-related injury or illness. In 2010, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration noted an injury rate more than 50 percent higher than the rate for all U.S. workers. And that’s with an acknowledged problem of under reporting and under counting.
The USDA’s own records, according to Kimberly Kindy of The Washington Post, have shown that nearly one million chickens and turkeys are unintentionally drowned in tanks of scalding hot water each year in U.S. slaughterhouses. The birds are shackled upside down, then dragged through an electrified water bath to stun them, sent by a neck slicer, and then dumped into the scalding water bath. The birds who don’t get electrocuted and then killed by the neck slicer are the ones who are boiled alive. This is not only cruel, it poses food safety risks as the stressed birds defecate in the scalding water shared by many other birds.
It is astonishing, but the federal government has never included poultry – more than 8 billion animals, accounting for more than 95 percent of all animals killed for food – under the terms of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.
In the end, the proposal is just one more generous concession to the nation’s largest poultry processors, who stand to gain an additional $250 million a year in revenue from the pick-up in the line speed. This industry is already highly deregulated, and this proposal makes an unacceptable situation even worse.
We are fighting self-regulation in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry, and the rampant corruption it has spawned. USDA knows about that corruption and its problems, so why would it hand-off even more oversight to the companies who already often demonstrate so little regard for birds and workers?