By Priyanka Pathak, Compassion in World Farming (intern)
The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) presented a proposal in January 2012 to save the federal government $39.6 million and the industry $258.9 million annually. The proposal known as HAACP-Based Inspection Models Project, or HIMP, aims to make the poultry slaughtering process more efficient by using fewer USDA inspectors to decrease the likelihood of foodborne illness, thereby allowing for faster processing. Even at first glance, the proposal seems too good to be true. Critics are not convinced that the FSIS provides ample evidence that food safety will actually improve with these changes and also point to the fact that increasing the speed of processing poses an increased risk for worker injury.
Worker health and safety is a significant problem in poultry industry processing plants, where workers use repetitive motions 20,000 to 30,000 times a day on an assembly lines used to process, on average, 200,000 bird per day. Poultry processing is among the most dangerous occupations in the United States according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The Bureau of Labor Statistics ranked poultry processing as having the fifth highest incidence rates of total nonfatal occupational illness cases in 2010. The combination of having to do repetitive motion at extremely fast line speeds, or the speed of the assembly line, is primarily what makes this occupation so dangerous. This occupation endangers workers as they interact with fast-moving live or dead birds by either causing them to seriously cut themselves or develop crippling musculoskeletal disorders over time. Line speed in not only directly correlated to worker injury, but also company profits. In other words, the faster the line speed, the more animals the facility processes, and the more money is made wile endangering workers. For a detailed reporting on occupational health in Georgia’s poultry industry, check out GPP’s Out of Sight Out of Mind Report, the chapter entitled “A Problem of Scale.”
Unfortunately for plant employees, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has not promulgated line speed standards in the industry. Therefore the USDA only considers two factors when regulating line speed: the physical design of individual facilities and the meat inspection process.
The inspection system proposed by the FSIS is a proposal that ensures faster line speeds without considering worker health and safety. It is proposing to increase efficiency by modifying the inspection process by decreasing the number of federal food inspectors while improving food safety, thereby hastening of the line speed facility-wide. The FSIS is essentially removing inspection as one of two limiting factors of line speed. Its language narrowly defines public health and environmental health by including food safety and excluding occupational health. The USDA has asked the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to prepare a report explaining how increased line speed with affect worker health by studying 5 non-HIMP facilities.
This proposal is an extremely disappointing for processing plant workers and advocates of occupational health. If the FSIS seriously considered occupational health increasing line speed would be out of the question. The public hearing date for this proposal has already passed, but as concerned citizens, we must be critical of this policy.