Department of Agriculture Sends Misguided Fiasco of a Poultry Processing Rule to the White House

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) sent its benighted poultry processing rule to the White House for final review. The millions of consumers who eat undercooked chicken at their peril and the beleaguered workers in these dank, overcrowded, and dangerous plants can only hope the president's people come to their senses over there and kill this misguided fiasco.

Ordinarily, we would have hoped that Department of Labor secretary Tom Perez would have put his foot down before USDA proceeded with the final rule, but after months of pleas from the National Council of La Raza, African American labor advocates, trade unions, and consumer groups across the spectrum, he has remained aloof. Apparently, the economic needs of multi-billion dollar poultry processing companies that have brought us salmonella outbreak after salmonella outbreak will once again trump the needs of the consumers and workers, especially Hispanic and African American workers who, if they are lucky, manage to avoid cutting themselves too often on crowded assembly lines only to succumb to crippling ergonomic injuries a few years down the road.

USDA claims that the rule will "modernize" the food safety system with respect to poultry grown and slaughtered in the U.S. This claim has got to be one of the greatest misrepresentations launched by the government so far this year. Instead, the rule makes a pair of very bad changes that benefit an industry undeserving of the public's trust: (1) it pulls hundreds of federal inspectors off the line at poultry plants so they won't be able to check birds for feces, blood, and feathers and (2) it allows chicken producers like Foster Farms, Perdue, and Pilgrim's Pride to speed the line up from 50-70 birds/minute to 175 -- or close to three birds every second.

In place, the rule imposes two laughable substitutes. The first is self-regulation by the chicken companies. USDA doesn't tell the companies what to test, how often to test, or what to do with test results, but rather leaves it up to each plant's managers to decide whether consumers and workers will be at too much "risk." Second, workers paid subsistence wages would assume the inspector's responsibilities, but the rule doesn't require any training on how they might approach that critical job. At three birds a second, and with the added job of hanging and processing the carcasses as they whip by, the idea that workers can do anything other than get hurt worse is quite remarkable.

USDA claims that the new system has been proven safe in a series of pilot projects conducted over the last several years. Yet the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has written two scathing reports on the scant data used in promulgating the rule and the Southern Poverty Law Center has released reports documenting the already harrowing musculoskeletal injuries poultry workers are subjected to.

The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) has long claimed that it reviews rules objectively, on their merits, and it is especially proud of its role in convening other agencies within the government that might have concerns about a rule to make sure their concerns are reflected in the final product. It's already quite late in the day, but we urge Howard Shelanski, head of OIRA, to call up Tom Perez and Occupational Safety and Healthy Administration chief David Michaels to ask why the rule does not protect poultry workers. We suspect that the answer is that USDA Secretary Vilsack has already overridden any concerns the worker safety experts thought to raise. In that case, the only potential source of salvation would be the Domestic Policy Council -- is anyone over there more in touch with the human face of this fiasco, not to mention the political demographics of USDA's misguided choices?