The United States Department of Agriculture is gearing up to deregulate the poultry business, and not everyone is on board with the plan. Workers, food safety experts and other food professionals are concerned about the implications of the Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection regulation, which would radically change the way slaughterhouses handling young poultry are run. Proponents say it will streamline slaughter, increase efficiency, and help bring slaughterhouses into the 21st century. Opponents are not convinced, and their arguments are compelling.
Three distinct areas of the regulation are giving critics room for pause: an increase of the speed on production lines, a reduction in the number of inspectors and an allowance for slaughterhouses to perform their own inspections. Any one of these three would be a cause for concern, but the mixture could be terrible for workers and animals alike in an industry that is already infamous for being inhumane and potentially extremely dangerous.
Currently, most slaughterhouses move at a rate of 70 to 140 birds per minute. The new regulation would increase that to 175, which is a significant leap and one that slaughterhouses aren’t really equipped to handle safely and humanely. As it stands now, workers are crammed along the production line moving things along as quickly as they can, and there’s no physical room to add workers who could handle the increased processing speed. Workers dealing with production on that scale complain of numerous occupational injuries including repetitive stress injuries along with hand and wrist pain. Their close proximity to other workers makes accidents inevitable, sometimes leading to serious infections and other complications. High speed processing is dangerous for workers and bad for birds, who are in for rough, careless handling in those conditions.
The USDA is also planning to reduce the number of inspectors assigned to production lines. Thanks to this in combination with the increased speed, inspectors will have just seconds to look at each bird, and they won’t be able to perform a thorough examination. Since contamination can lurk inside carcasses as well as on the outside, inevitably some significant issues will be missed, and slaughterhouses will be sending out birds that could carry pathogens. Increasing the load on already tired inspectors is a recipe for disaster and consumers, especially those with compromised immune systems, will pay the price.
Self-inspection is also a potential problem, as workers don’t have the same training that USDA inspectors do. Furthermore, they’re under pressure from their employers to pass birds, which is a significant conflict of interest. Separately paid USDA inspectors can focus on consumer health first and the interests of the company second, but people depending on the slaughterhouse for a check don’t have the luxury of pulling birds from the line, questioning decisions or enforcing standards as rigorously. Anything that slows the line is anathema in a high speed business with serious money at stake.
The industry claims these changes are needed to reflect shifts in the poultry industry; much of the law surrounding inspection dates to the mid-twentieth century, when slaughterhouses looked very different. They say the reduction of inspectors only means that workers will focus on quality control at the front of the line, with USDA inspectors evaluating birds for potential pathogens at the end. However, the vast assortment of civil rights and animal rights groups arrayed against the industry suggest these claims may not bear water; especially when you consider the billions the industry stands to make.
Whether you want to eat chicken that’s been dropped on the floor and looked at for less than three seconds is up to you, but many advocates are encouraging Congress to add chickens to the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, and they’re asking the USDA to reconsider whether this “modernization” is really good for workers or animals.
Photo credit: Kristine Paulus.