Last month, an unusual scuffle played out between two federal agencies over a controversial proposal by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to increase the speed of kill lines for poultry in slaughterhouses. But with testing from Consumer Reports last year revealing that 97 percent of raw chicken breasts purchased at retailers are contaminated with harmful bacteria, and with poultry workers already suffering from numerous job-related injuries, advocacy groups are vigorously opposed to the idea. The rule would also reduce the number of USDA inspectors required to ensure food safety, transferring some of that responsibility to the chicken and turkey companies themselves. But as one former inspector (who worked both for the USDA and the chicken industry) warned, plant workers are not properly trained for inspection, and they are too scared for their jobs to speak up. That’s why groups such as Food and Water Watch are taking out newspaper ads calling the proposal the “Filthy Chicken Rule.”
Ever since the idea was first floated in 2012, food safety and worker advocacy groups have been complaining that the USDA is putting profits over health and safety. In March, 68 members of Congress sent a letter charging the agency with inadequately addressing serious concerns about public health, worker safety and animal welfare.
In the wake of the controversy, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) released a study (PDF) that expressed grave concerns for worker safety — from musculoskeletal disorders to traumatic injuries — after reviewing data from a Pilgrim’s Pride poultry processing plant in South Carolina. Yet to prop up its flawed proposal, the USDA twisted those findings into good news, claiming that “the increase in evisceration line speeds was not a significant factor in worker safety.” (The USDA does not have jurisdiction over worker safety — the Occupational Safety and Health Administration does — so its line speed rule can ignore workers.) In a highly unusual rebuke, the director of the NIOSH wrote a public letter on April 7 chastising the head of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service for misinterpreting the data and making “misleading” statements.
Safety last on kill lines
But let’s back up a bit. As Mother Jones magazine explained last year, “Currently, each factory-scale slaughterhouse has four USDA inspectors overseeing kill lines churning out up to 140 birds every minute. Under the USDA’s new plan, a single federal inspector would oversee lines killing as many as 175 birds per minute.”
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack defends the proposal under the guise of modernization (an industry code word for deregulation) and claims the new standard would actually reduce bacterial contamination. However, Food and Water Watch found numerous food safety problems with the USDA’s pilot project owing to company inspectors missing defects such as “feathers, lungs, oil glands, trachea and bile still on the carcass.”
The rule is especially terrible for workers, who already suffer unsafe conditions, resulting in serious injuries and even lifelong disabilities. Last year the Southern Poverty Law Center released a disturbing account of worker injuries and health problems in Alabama poultry slaughterhouses due to what it called “punishing” line speeds. Workers were made to “endure debilitating pain in their hands, gnarled fingers, chemical burns and respiratory problems.” Also, for many immigrant workers, as the law center put it, “Threats of deportation and firing are frequently used to keep them silent,” making the USDA’s attempt to spin the recent NIOSH data particularly disturbing.
Federal agencies appear to be ganging up on the USDA — and rightly so. The Government Accountability Office published a report last year criticizing the USDA’s plan on the basis of inadequate and faulty safety data. Of course, the chicken industry loves the proposal. In fact, the National Chicken Council would prefer not having any limits on line speeds at all.
Failing on antitrust
None of this comes as a surprise to Christopher Leonard, a fellow at the New America Foundation and author of the recently released book “The Meat Racket,” a stunning history of the rise of Tyson Foods — the world’s largest meat company, spanning beef, chicken and pork — and how it transformed the entire chicken industry.
Leonard told me the proposed rules are just another sign of the power of the meat industry. Not showing much confidence in the USDA’s leadership, he said, “It shows what kind of laws can effectively be passed under the tenure of Tom Vilsack.”
The devastating effects of meat industry consolidation on rural America are vastly underreported and largely ignored by policymakers.
The meat industry is so powerful because over the decades, production has consolidated into the hands of a few players. As a result, small farmers and ranchers have either been squeezed out or made to operate under challenging conditions; with so little competition, the major players call the shots. That’s why as a presidential candidate (and in his “Blueprint for Change”) Barack Obama touted the importance of meat industry economic reform. Specifically, he promised to “strengthen anti-monopoly laws and strengthen producer protections to ensure independent farmers have fair access to markets, control over their production decisions, and fair prices for their goods.” The USDA did try to enforce antitrust law and promulgate new regulations to protect farmers and ranchers from unfair business practices. But after much internal debate at the USDA (and with the White House) that resulted in key agency staffers resigning in disgust, the final rule was all but gutted.
The Obama administration ultimately caved to industry pressure, which took the form, in part, of an information campaign that portrayed the proposal to protect small producers “as the first step toward economic ruin of the meat business,” according to Leonard. This sky-is-falling scaremongering is a typical industry tactic to maintain the status quo.
The failed attempt to enforce antitrust law in the meat industry proved to be an especially painful experience for the many farmers and ranchers who attended a series of workshops co-hosted by the USDA and the Department of Justice in 2010. The idea was for the feds to hear directly from the small producers to learn about the challenges they face. I attended the last event in Washington, D.C., and talked to chicken growers from Arkansas who had come to the capital to share their struggles, such as earning only pennies on the dollar for their labor. But as “The Meat Racket” shows, the devastating effects of meat industry consolidation on rural America are vastly underreported and largely ignored by policymakers.
Leonard’s book dramatically describes how Tyson pioneered the vertically integrated system, in which the company owns every step of production, from hatching the eggs to slaughtering and packaging the final products. One step in the process remains “independent” because it’s the least profitable: raising the birds. Still, Tyson retains very tight controls over the growers and their operations, resulting in a kind of serf system. One chicken grower from North Carolina told the USDA at one of the 2010 hearings: “This system takes hardworking farmers and makes them indentured servants on their own land. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that our contract would be canceled if we did such and such.”
Big Chicken running scared
The National Chicken Council, according to Leonard, “started attacking the book within hours of its publication,” posting one-star reviews on Amazon, putting up a page on its website called “Meat Racket Myths” (PDF) and circulating the Twitter hashtag #meatracketmyths. But Leonard said he was most surprised by “the deluge of anonymous people from inside the industry who thanked me for writing the book. Many of them — manager types who work for Tyson and ConAgra — said that things are worse than I portrayed them.”
What is the chicken industry so afraid of? Maybe it’s that if too many people hear the real story about meat production in this country and learn more about the industry’s unsavory practices, they will realize that the heartless corporation behind their boneless chicken patty is destroying rural America. As Leonard told me, “Consumers don’t want to think that the American farmers raising their meat are ensnared in a form of modern sharecropping. The chicken lobby knows how indefensible most of these practices are, so they have to attack the messenger rather than entertaining the truth, which might lead to reform.”
Those reforms would include slowing down, not speeding up, the kill lines in poultry slaughterhouses to improve safety for workers and consumers; ensuring that farmers and ranchers are paid a fair price for their hard work; and enforcing antitrust laws to encourage a more competitive marketplace. But these are the sorts of reforms that we seem to hear about only in campaign promises.