What’s more important to you? Allowing poultry processing plants to make higher profits or worker and consumer safety? Those are the issues to consider resulting from a new rule the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) is set to implement next year.
Care2 writer Piper Hoffman wrote last year about the proposed USDA changes to poultry production. Increase the kill speed and decrease inspectors. A frightening thought, since the proposed changes will not only make the slaughter process even less humane for the chickens than it already is, it will increase the opportunity for food pathogens to be sent along to consumers and put worker safety at an even higher risk. Compared to other industries, poultry line workers have a 50 percent higher incidence of work-related injuries. According to Mother Jones, it looks like the rule will be implemented by September 2014.
Current Slaughter Methods
Poultry slaughter lines are an obscene practice that includes:
- Shackling – where live chickens are hung upside down by their feet (or foot)
- Stunning – chickens become immobilized by being dragged through salted, cold water and shocked with electricity, but remain conscious
- Neck cutting - severing the chicken’s carotid arteries to bleed out
- Bleed-Out Tunnel – where the birds are given 90 seconds to bleed to death but more often than not are still alive and suffering when transferred to a scald tank
- Scald Tank – submerged in a tank of scolding hot water to loosen feathers. Again, often the chickens are still alive and conscious at the end of this process
Currently, the average poultry slaughterhouse processes 140 chickens per minute. The new rules propose an increase to 175 per minute. There are also now four USDA inspectors per slaughterhouse. The new rule will reduce that to one. So, the U.S. government estimates it will save $90 million over three years by firing 3 out of 4 inspectors. The estimated savings to the poultry industry is $256 million per year.
Inspectors are currently required to monitor the kill line for visible defects like feces, bruising, blood, blemishes and tumors. That’s less than a half of one second per bird to identify and remove defective chickens from going to your table. Would you like to guess how many defective birds make it through? I shudder at the thought. At 175 per minute, it reduces that time to less than a third of a second. And, the new rule takes this job away from USDA inspectors and puts responsibility on the slaughterhouse employees. Pardon the pun, but this sounds like putting the hen in charge of the hen house!
Proposed New Rules
The USDA wants to:
- Reduce inspectors by 75 percent
- Increase kill time from 140 to 175 per minute
- Take inspection responsibility away from USDA and give it to the slaughterhouses
- Have all chicken carcasses washed, sprayed with water, imbued with chlorine and anti-microbial chemicals
- Have the remaining one USDA inspector per slaughterhouse perform 20 – 80 random exams of chicken carcasses per shift
The USDA has been performing pilot studies at 20 volunteer slaughterhouses over the past 13 years. U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack testified recently expectation for the new rule will prevent “somewhere between three and five thousand foodborne illnesses” per year. This is less than Alfred Almanza, administrator of the FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service) wrote last year when he estimated they would potentially prevent 5,200 people from contracting food borne illnesses.
F&WW (Food & Water Watch) reports different study results from USDA. F&WW reviewed records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and evaluated six months worth of reports from some of the slaughterhouses participating in the study. Ninety percent of defects were “visible fecal contamination missed by company employees.”
It is interesting to note that OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) — the agency that oversees the health and safety of workers — does not regulate speed of poultry kill lines. Only USDA has input into how many chickens can be safely killed per minute. And here, “safety” refers to contamination, not worker safety.
How quickly could you take a sharp knife and slit both carotid arteries of a chicken? Aside from the repetitive motion injury risk, think about the risk of wielding a knife so fast and close to other workers standing right next to you. SPLC (Southern Poverty Law Center) states poultry line workers have a work-related injury report rate of 5.9% per year. This is twice the average for other industries. Making matters worse, many poultry line workers are immigrants and do not report injuries for fear of retaliation by slaughterhouse attitudes that consider them disposable.
What to Consider
If the new USDA rules (and the old ones, for that matter) don’t sit right with you, consider giving up meat in your diet. Supply and demand is what will ultimately force changes in the slaughterhouse industry.
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