The Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) proposal to “modernize” the poultry inspection system by replacing government inspectors with company employees, and speeding up the processing line to a staggering 175 birds per minute, has been exposed on numerous occasions as a disaster-waiting-to-happen for food and worker safety. In its zeal to save money for poultry corporations, the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) failed to conduct its much-vaunted “interagency review” before giving the proposed rule its stamp of approval—it even neglected to invite the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to weigh in on the obvious dangers posed to workers.
As if more evidence were needed that the poultry rule is a horrible idea, it turns out that the rule also poses a number of serious threats to the environment that went unaddressed in the USDA’s analysis, as CPR President Rena Steinzor and I explain in a letter sent today to OIRA Deputy Administrator Dominic Mancini.
As proposed, the rule threatens to significantly increase water pollution in at least two distinct ways. First, it would lead to an increase in the use of poultry-sanitizing chemicals, which then have to be discharged into nearby water bodies where they will have toxic effects on aquatic life and threaten ecosystems. Poultry plants are expected to increase their reliance on something called “online reprocessing” (OLR), where all carcasses, visually contaminated or not, pass through automatic sprayers on the line that drench them with large amounts of antimicrobial chemicals like chlorine and trisodium phosphate (imagine a car wash … but for chickens). In the more traditional method, only those carcasses that are visually identified as contaminated are taken off the line for reprocessing, undergoing procedures that use smaller amounts of chemicals.Full text
In late 2011, a little known but surprisingly influential independent federal agency called the Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS) conducted a research project on “International Regulatory Cooperation” (IRC), culminating in a set of recommendations to U.S. agencies. In a letter sent yesterday (March 21), CPR Member Scholars Rena Steinzor and Thomas McGarity, and I urge ACUS Chairman Paul Verkuil to look back over the project’s many flaws, which reflect—in both process and substance—ACUS’s pervasive bias toward the views of regulated industries.
What exactly is meant by “international regulatory cooperation”? As we write:
The principal objective of IRC is to “harmonize” U.S. regulatory standards with those of other countries or international standard-setting organizations. …. There is always a danger that such harmonization efforts will become a deregulatory “race to the bottom” in which nations, at the urging of business groups, converge on the least protective standard in the interest of maximizing international trade.
A number of current proposals (described in an attachment to the letter) illustrate how “harmonization” efforts can significantly reduce health, safety, or environmental protections. For example, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed establishing “import tolerances” for residues of unapproved animal drugs in foods shipped to the United States. Instead of its normally rigorous drug approval process, the FDA would essentially rely on a foreign government’s approval of the drug in question, conducting a much less comprehensive review before signing off on the wholesale importation of foods containing that residue. The FDA would in many cases borrow the “maximum residue limits” established by the Codex Alimentarius, an international standard-setting body heavily influenced by industry groups. Since much of the food we eat in the United States is imported (15 percent of all our food, 91 percent of our seafood, 61 percent of our honey, and 8 percent of our red meat), the presence of unapproved drug residues could expose Americans to much higher risks of allergic reactions, cancer, and other serious health problems.Full text
A report released yesterday by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice offers a devastating glimpse into the world of Alabama poultry workers. Forced to hang, fold, gut, or slice more than 100 carcasses each minute, these workers suffer injuries at astounding rates: of the 302 workers interviewed, almost three-quarters have experienced a significant work-related injury or illness, from deep cuts and debilitating hand pain to chemical burns and respiratory problems. More than anything, these injuries are a result of the punishing line speeds that workers have to keep up with—lines that never slow or stop when a worker is in pain, but only when a piece of chicken becomes lodged in the machinery.
Unsafe at These Speeds: Alabama’s Poultry Industry and Its Disposable Workers is a sobering report, especially since it comes at a time when the Department of Agriculture (USDA) is preparing to finalize a proposed rule that would allow poultry plants to raise line speeds to a staggering 175 birds per minute (up from current limits of 70-140 birds per minute) and would leave only one federal inspector on each line. In other words, workers would have only one-third of a second to spend on each carcass, and the inspection duties previously handled by USDA inspectors would be turned over to company employees. As disturbing as that looks on paper, the real-world implications are even worse in light of the working conditions described in this report.
The new report describes how the relentless pace of the processing line creates a frenzied work environment that affects every aspect of the job. Not only do workers face greater injuries from performing their tasks, they are also denied necessary breaks as supervisors insist that they stay on the speeding line. Some literally run to the bathroom on slippery blood-streaked floors, racing back to the line to avoid getting in trouble. Because workers are not given the time to sharpen their knives, they are made to use dull knives, which require them to strain their muscles even harder to cut through meat and bone.Full text
CPR President Rena Steinzor and Member Scholar Thomas McGarity sent a letter this morning to Paul Verkuil, Chairman of the Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS), taking the independent federal agency to task for its increasingly apparent bias toward the views of industry groups and its troubling alliance with current and former officials at the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). By repeatedly partnering with groups engaged in destructive battles with the agencies that write protective regulations, ACUS deviates from its stated mission of “providing nonpartisan expert advice and recommendations for improvement of federal agency procedures,” argue Steinzor and McGarity.
After losing its funding in 1995, ACUS was officially revived in 2010 at the urging of a broad spectrum of experts and organizations, including public interest groups, some of which are represented among ACUS’ membership. As Steinzor and McGarity write:
[One] reason advanced for ACUS’ reemergence was the inability of existing institutions, such as OIRA itself, to be reliably neutral and independent in studying ways to improve the administrative process. If ACUS comes to be seen as merely another vehicle for OIRA loyalists and their industry allies to press their agendas and drown out opposing voices, then ACUS will lose part of its distinctive raison d'être.
In that event, they suggest, many of ACUS’ original supporters may be forced to reassess its value and even withdraw from the organization.Full text