Legislator: Fast meat ‘at what cost ?’

By Sarah D. Wire
This article was published February 28, 2014 at 2:17 a.m.

     WASHINGTON - Alicia Acosta left her job at an Arkansas poultry processing plant after four years of the quick, repetitive work because of pain in her hands and wrists.
On Thursday, Acosta, 53, of Siloam Springs spoke to a handful of lawmakers and reporters in Washington through a translator, urging them to keep the U.S. Department of Agriculture from increasing line production speed by 25 percent. The department is expected to soon finalize a rule that will allow companies to increase production from 140 birds per minute to 170 birds per minute. The rules will also change how and when poultry is inspected and reduce the number of federal inspectors to one per line.
     Rather than have federal inspectors located throughout the facility, poultry companies would use their own employees to inspect chicken and turkey, and the federal inspector would do a final check.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in 2012 that about 1,000 government inspector jobs at poultry plants would be phased out as companies take over the job of looking for flaws such as bruises in chickens on the processing line. He said the remaining inspectors would shift to jobs more important to food safety, such as sampling for pathogens and keeping conditions sanitary.
     The move could save the government as much as $95 million in the first three years, Vilsack said at the time. The change has been studied in a handful of plants for over a decade.
Sens. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and John Boozman, R-Ark., joined 11 other senators in a December 2013 letter to Vilsack urging him to finalize the rule and move forward with the changes.
“He feels that the research that has been conducted so far shows that it can enhance public safety while saving money so it is a win-win,” Boozman spokesman Patrick Creamer said. Staffs for several Arkansas congressmen said they were examining the issue.
      According to the National Chicken Council, companies that produce and process chicken in Arkansas employed about 43,000 people in 2012. The bulk of those jobs, over 27,000, are in the 3rd Congressional District in northwest Arkansas. Chicken companies have said they support the change. Tyson Foods has tested the inspection change at two of its poultry plants and said it reduced redundancies and lets federal inspectors focus on other things. “We believe changes to the current inspection system would benefit food safety by allowing USDA inspectors to spend more time looking for potential contamination or disease,” said Dan Fogleman, spokesman for Tyson Foods, Inc. "We can also tell you we’ve seen significant improvements from an updated USDA inspection system the agency has been testing at two of our poultry plants. This modified system gives USDA’s staff more flexibility to focus on things that verify the effectiveness of our food safety activities.”
“We don’t want to see anyone hurt on the job and have programs and policies in place to prevent workplace injuries and illnesses.” Fogleman added.
      Acosta and other poultry employees from around the country said at Thursday’s news conference that they are concerned because the current speed of the production line already leads to injuries.
Acosta said she worked at a Simmons Foods poultry plant in Siloam Springs from 2009 to 2013 using a machine to butcher chicken for cutlets and nuggets during 12-hour shifts.
Calls placed to Simmons Foods were not returned Thursday.
“I started to feel pain in my wrists and I started to see bumps. … It hurt a lot. I was in a lot of pain,” Acosta said during an appearance on Capitol Hill. She said plant managers told employees the production line’s speed would increase to keep up with production demands. “I noticed the line speed going faster, and I started seeing the pain grow stronger,” she said.  Acosta said each time she visited the plant’s on-site nurse she was given some ointment and sent back to work. She said she struggled to keep up with the line and finally quit when she was repeatedly threatened with firing.  Workers from other companies spoke about losing fingers, developing carpal tunnel syndrome or being fired for going to a doctor.
     Members of the Congressional Black Caucus urged other members of Congress to help them block the rule.
“The majority of the poultry workers on the line are minorities and/or women, mostly African-American or Latino,” Chairman U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, said. “Many line workers have been critically injured or have suffered debilitative pain or have lost their life.”
She said that while the USDA says the change will save money and increase production, “I ask at what cost?”
“Is achieving cost savings more important than workers’ health, their lives and the safety of our food?” Fudge said.  Minor Sinclair, director of Oxfam America, an antipoverty advocacy group, said people are hurt when plant lines process birds at 2½ every second.  “To increase that rate by 25 percent? Folks, that’s unconscionable,” he said. “We don’t live in the meatpacking jungle of 1900.”

Information for this article was contributed by Tina Parker of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Business, Pages 27 on 02/28/2014
Print Headline: Legislator: Fast meat ‘at what cost?’