poultry processingNewly-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.





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18 Comments

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Tony

Chicken is not getting safer to eat, and there's nothing in the body of the article to suggest that it is. That the USDA is hoping that their dictates will improve the safety of does not mean that it will.

May 15 2012 at 11:18 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Paul

ONLY EAT AIR-CHILLED CHICKEN OR DON'T EAT THEM. All other chicken is cooled in an icewater bath of bleach. Air-chilled is more expensive but you don't get a bird soaked in bleach water.

May 15 2012 at 3:28 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
THOM

First they say chicken is getting worse to eat...but it is getting easier/safer to fix...confusion yes, akward, definitely!

May 14 2012 at 11:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
jgmrealestate

Put Kim Kardashian in a chicken suit and start plucking away.

May 14 2012 at 10:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
digio252

National Council of La Raza. < what!?

May 14 2012 at 9:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Craigermt

The majority of the workers are imports from Somalia and Mexico and most are illegals, so who cares. If these were US citizens, maybe we should be concerned. When we get to an area where real citizens are in danger, let me know. Almost every packing plant; beef, chicken or pork, that gets a notice from INS that it is going to be inspected on a certain day has to curtail its business on that day and for a while after until it can come up with more workers. Why? The average american citizen would rather sit at home and collect unemployment and food stamps than actually do something. And the faster processing won't cause a problem for the consumer because most of the chicken will receive a bath of chlorine first which will get rid of all the bacteria. Ya, think that isn't done? Many restaurants hit chicken with chlorine bleach, pat dry and then in cooking the chlorine disapates leaving no residue or taste. And you think pink slime, which you have been eating for over a decade without a proble, is the only thing you have to worry about. And if you think I am wrong on the chlorine thing, check with you city water system how THEY purify YOUR water. Amazing what good chemicals can really do.

May 14 2012 at 8:45 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Bob Shull.

I have actualy worked in the poultry business in my youth and I can say for a fact that the line needs to be slowed rather than increased in speed.God Bless the people willing to process these birds for us all.

May 14 2012 at 8:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
rk102136

joe you are a promlem child

May 14 2012 at 7:51 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Bob

When the Huff and Puff Post says Obama is dangerous....I will start to believe their rhetoric. This whole news site is the National Enquirer. Kinda like their founder....who reminds me of John Kerry's wife.....a total loser and immigrant.

May 14 2012 at 7:37 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Bob's comment
Tony

And that's the gripe - immigrant. Are you native American? Just asking.

May 15 2012 at 11:20 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Annika

Yes, anything to squeeze another nickel out of those chickens! Corporate greed knows no boundaries. Just a word of caution; processing even more chickens per minute isn't just increase health and safety risks to the workers, but to the consumers as well. Chicken used not to contain salmonella, now it does...not like the overcrowded living conditions would have anything to do with it, noo!
I'm staying on the safe side and raise my own chickens. At least I know what went into them and that they're healthy.

May 14 2012 at 7:03 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply