Newly-drafted USDA regulations aimed at protecting public health may make poultry safer to eat, but there's a trade-off that puts worker health and safety on the line.
The USDA's proposed regulation -- called "Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection" -- is designed to improve food safety by allowing poultry processing plants to automate certain aspects of the inspection process so the Food and Safety Inspection Service can dedicate more inspectors to higher-risk areas.
To provide an incentive for improvement and innovation in the inspection process, the USDA's proposed regulation includes a provision that allows some plants to increase current maximum line speeds from 140 young chickens per minute to 175.
Allowing higher inspection and processing speeds could compromise worker health and safety, posing risks of repetitive-motion injuries to workers, as well as skin and respiratory illnesses, according to a recent report released by the National Council of La Raza.
The regulations would affect poultry businesses like Tyson (TSN), Cargill, Pilgrim's (PPC), and Smithfield Foods (SFD).
The NCLR report criticizes the increased line speed by claiming that it "is based on the unsubstantiated assumption that faster line speed will have no adverse impact on worker health and safety."
To support its worries, the report highlights statistics from the Department of Labor that show reported injuries among 5.9% of poultry workers, compared to 4.4% of workers in manufacturing. According to one study cited in the NCLR report, higher risk of injury and illness are caused by a variety of factors, including the damp environment of the processing plants, contamination from the poultry, and the use of "knives and scissors in crowded conditions."
Risks Could Be Worse Than Reported
The NCLR's report indicates that while the reported injury rate is already high in the poultry industry, a variety of factors cause poultry workers to underreport their injuries.
Some of these barriers include concerns about retaliation from supervisors, lack of job security, language barriers, and immigration status. Such underreporting undermines the ability of the government to push for regulatory standards that protect workers.
While the NCLR's report focuses on Latinos, who make up 34% of workers in the poultry industry, it highlights concerns about all low-income workers in this industry, whose vulnerable employment status in a struggling economy puts them in a poor position to report injuries and advocate for safer working conditions.
Motley Fool contributor M. Joy Hayes, Ph.D. is the principal at ethics consulting firm Courageous Ethics. She doesn't own shares of any of the companies mentioned. Follow @JoyofEthics on Twitter.