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Statement of CPR President Rena Steinzor on the Finalization of USDA’s Poultry Inspection Rule that Harms Consumers and Workers

In a press call today, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the poultry slaughter “modernization” rule is final and effective immediately.  

CPR President Rena Steinzor reacted to the rule's finalization:

The rule is a travesty from the perspective of every child who has chicken nuggets for lunch and every low-wage worker who stands in a fetid, overcrowded room cutting chicken carcasses thousands of times a day.

The new inspection system will allow plants to operate their slaughtering and evisceration lines at speeds that have proven hazardous for workers.  It will pull federal inspectors off the processing line, ensuring that carcasses caked in blood, guts, and feathers whir by at the rate of 2.3 bird per second.

The Government Accountability Office 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.

We’re disappointed that the Obama administration has turned its back on workers and left consumers at the mercy of Big Chicken. 

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CPR President Rena Steinzor in Roll Call: Congress Vs. GM: 'Why Not Jail' Squares Off Against K Street

Today, Roll Call published a piece by CPR President Rena Steinzor in support of the "Hide no Harm" bill.

According to the piece:

The “Hide No Harm Act” includes a definition of the “responsible corporate officer” against whom such cases could be brought, clarifying an existing legal doctrine by saying higher-level executives have the “responsibility and authority, by reason of his or her position in the business entity  . . .  to acquire knowledge of any serious danger.” The key is that the person could or should have known, not that he or she admits to having known.

It concludes:

The Department of Justice is undoubtedly negotiating fervently with company lawyers to reach a corporate settlement. But the prospect of allowing GM to buy its way out of having caused at least 13 deaths without even admitting criminal liability, casts a shadow over the proceedings. Why should the responsible parties at GM escape prosecution because the corporate “person” that employs them can afford to pay a hefty monetary penalty, giving federal prosecutors brief bragging rights without deterring other bad actors? Why not jail is now the most pressing question.

To read the piece in full, click here.

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Tweaks to Bad Chicken Processing Rule Leave Workers and Consumers in the Lurch; Rule Hurtles Out of the White House Door at Record Speed

We’ve received the bad news from impeccable sources that the much-criticized USDA poultry processing rule has passed White House review at record speed—20 days, count ‘em!—and will be released late this afternoon.  As usual, the process of OIRA review was shrouded in secrecy, with affected stakeholders filing in and out of the White House to talk about a rule they had never seen to taciturn OIRA officials who had long since cut a deal with USDA.  Of course, the late afternoon release is designed to forestall criticism in the same news cycle that will report the White House spin on the rule.  But we know enough about it to make some basic observations.

Our sources informed us that the rule will allow companies to have processing lines that run at the speed of 140 birds per minute—that’s 2.3 chickens every single second, although it’s also the current USDA maximum, allowing USDA to claim that the new rule doesn’t make matters any worse. 

OSHA, which was deeply involved in negotiations with USDA, clearly views this outcome as a great victory because it reduces by 35 birds/minute the original and outlandish USDA proposal that line speeds increase to 175 birds/minute.  But saving workers from the furthest reach of bad conditions without beginning to address their documented daily misery is incremental change, not victory. The plain truth is that study after study, including a recent NIOSH report, have documented severe ergonomic injuries at line speeds significantly below 140 birds/minute.  OSHA didn’t review those studies dispassionately in a rulemaking that would honor its mission of protecting workers from harm.  Instead, it played a numbers game with USDA under the watchful eye of White House staffers, leaving an already bad working situation to fester. 

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Silly “Secret Science” Scheme Slithers to the Senate

It must be something of a game for them.  That’s really the only explanation I can come up with for why the antiregulatory members of Congress seem so intent on competing with each other to see who can introduce the most outlandish, over-the-top anti-EPA bill.  If it is a game, then its best competitors would have to include Senators John Barasso (R-WY) and David Vitter (R-LA) who earlier this month introduced S. 2613, the Secret Science Reform Act of 2014.

If this bill sounds familiar, that’s because it is identical to one that was introduced in the House in February by Rep. David Schweikert (R-AZ).  At the time, a group of CPR Member Scholars sent a letter to the Subcommittee on the Environment of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, of which Representative Schweikert is chair, to explain their concerns in anticipation of the subcommittee’s legislative hearing on the bill.  The bill, which the House Science Committee approved along party lines and now awaits full floor consideration, purports to prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from taking any action that is informed by scientific or technical information—including issuing new regulations—unless the EPA affirmatively makes all of that scientific or technical information fully available to the public.  Since the EPA’s mission is necessarily science-driven, this bill would pretty much cover everything the agency does.

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The GAO’s Scathing Report on the SBA Office of Advocacy: 15 Big Revelations

As I noted here last week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report that delivered a scathing review of the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Office of Advocacy.  The GAO report’s general objective was to assess whether and to what extent the SBA Office of Advocacy is fulfilling its core mission of serving as a “voice for small businesses within the federal government,” and accordingly looked at two of its most important activities for carrying out that core mission: sponsoring small business-centered economic research and participating in individual rulemakings that have a significant impact on small business interests.

In contrast to most GAO reports—which are conspicuous for avoiding controversy and their dry, moderate tone—this one offered some uncharacteristically strong criticisms of the SBA Office of Advocacy.  For example, after rejecting the SBA Office of Advocacy’s feeble excuses for not taking any steps to verify the quality of information contained in a series of controversial studies on regulatory costs that the agency had sponsored, the GAO report opined, “We acknowledge that these reports may not necessarily be representative of all Advocacy’s research efforts, but not substantiating the quality of the information in even one study could call into question the credibility of Advocacy’s research program.”  (See page 15.)  Elsewhere, the GAO report took the SBA Office of Advocacy to task for its complete failure to document their roundtable discussions, noting that this failure made it “difficult to determine the extent to which small businesses and related entities were represented at these events.”  (See page 18.)

If the GAO seems frustrated, it’s for good reason.  Their review of the SBA Office of Advocacy’s activities produced the following 15 disturbing revelations:

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CPR’s Persistent Watchdogging of Embattled SBA Office of Advocacy Prompts Scathing GAO Report

Earlier today, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a scathing report, criticizing the regulatory work and research conducted by the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Office of Advocacy.  For the past several years, CPR has worked to bring much-needed attention from policymakers, the press, and the public interest community to the SBA Office of Advocacy, which has long leveraged its powerful position in the rulemaking process to oppose stronger safeguards necessary for protecting people and the environment.  Critically, as CPR’s work reveals, the beneficiaries of the SBA Office of Advocacy’s interventions have been large corporations and trade groups, to the detriment of the small businesses they are actually supposed to be helping.

The report, Office of Advocacy Needs to Improve Controls over Research, Regulatory, and Workforce Planning Activities, was conducted in response to a request for a review of “Advocacy’s activities” from the Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government within the Senate Committee on Appropriations.  The report notes that the subcommittee’s request was made because “[q]uestions have recently been raised about Advocacy's efforts to represent small businesses in regulatory activities and some of its research on small business issues.”

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CPR Scholars Support 'Hide no Harm' Bill to Hold Corporate Officers Accountable for Negligence

New legislation introduced by Senator Blumenthal (D-CT) and co-sponsored by Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) would ensure that corporate executives who knowingly market life-threatening products or continue unsafe business practices are held criminally responsible when people die or are injured.  

Under the Hide No Harm Act, key corporate managers will be required by law to report serious dangers to relevant government agencies, employees and affected members of the public.

CPR Member Scholars wrote in support of the bill to Senators in a letter last month.

According to the letter:

The recent General Motors (GM) ignition switch scandal vividly illustrates the catastrophic consequences that can result when corporations fail to disclose the known dangers associated with their harmful business activities.   The now highly profitable auto manufacturer—$3.8 billion last year alone—determined that the estimated $2.3-million-fix for the problem ($0.90 fix for 2.6 million cars total) was just too costly to undertake.  Instead, GM concealed the problem for more than a decade as part a concerted campaign that included repeatedly lying to its customers, the media, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the federal agency charged with overseeing car safety.  All the while, GM’s customers continued to climb into cars that the company knew were not safe.  GM admits that 13 people died in crashes caused by the faulty switch.

Similar to GM, other companies appear to have prioritized profits ahead of public wellbeing in this manner.  The available evidence indicates that in 2007 and 2008 Peanut Corporation of America knew its peanut paste had tested positive for salmonella, but shipped it out anyway, ultimately killing 9 and sickening 714.   Similarly, government-led investigations suggest that the New England Compounding Center—the compounding pharmacy that sold fungal-contaminated medication leading to the 2012 meningitis outbreak that killed 64 people and sickened at least 751 others in 20 states—knew that it was not taking adequate precautions to ensure that the drugs it produced and packaged were safe.

It is within Congress’s power to ensure that corporations are properly held accountable for putting the public at unnecessary risk by failing to disclose the dangers of the business activities.  As morally reprehensible as this behavior is, corporations face strong economic incentives to leave their customers and workers in the dark.  Too many corporations will continue to act according to those incentives, unless Congress enacts some form of legislation that makes the costs of not warning the public too great to ignore.

The letter concludes:

If enacted, this bill would strongly discourage most companies from taking unreasonable risks with the lives and safety of their customers and workers.  For those scofflaw companies who decide to keep the public in the dark anyway, the bill would provide a critical avenue for obtaining some measure of justice for those who harmed or killed as a result of those companies’ failure to warn.

We urge that you make it a top priority to enact legislation that would address the ongoing crisis of corporations failing to disclose to the public the dangers associated with their business activities, and in particular consider Senator Blumenthal’s Hide No Harm Act.

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Citizen Enforcement: Preventing Sediment Pollution One Construction Site at a Time

I will never look at a construction site the same way again.

Certain types of pollution—mostly sediment, nitrogen, and phosphorus—run into the Chesapeake Bay and fuel algal blooms, creating dead zones where crabs, oysters and other Bay life cannot survive. Indeed, the Chesapeake is on track to have an above-average dead zone this year.

Construction sites are a major source of sediment runoff. When mud washes from a single construction site, it can damage three miles of downstream waters. Recovery can take up to a century. Maryland has rules that construction companies are supposed to follow to minimize runoff. These rules pay off: For every dollar spent keeping mud onsite, taxpayers save $100 or more in damages avoided.

That’s why I spent last Wednesday driving around Baltimore with four others checking to see whether constructions sites were following the rules.

I learned that the most effective measure to prevent runoff is to quickly get disturbed soil under a dense blanket of straw mulch, then grass. Other measures, like the black fences you see at most construction sites, can't keep enough mud on the site to prevent pollution. Simply put, exposed soil equals pollution. Whenever you see exposed soil on a construction site, pollution will occur come the next rain. 

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Give Them an Inch … And They’ll Take Twenty Years

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has gone to exceeding lengths to defer to states’ efforts to bring their water quality standards into the twenty-first century.  But the state of Washington has shown the perils of this deferential posture, if the goals of the Clean Water Act (CWA) are ever to be reached for our nation’s waters.  After months and years of delay, Governor Jay Inslee held a press conference this week to unveil his long-awaited plan for updating Washington’s water quality standards for toxic contaminants – standards currently premised on a fish consumption rate (FCR) derived from a 40-year-old survey of human exposure. 

Inslee’s grand plan? 

Take one step forward, two (or so) steps backward … and appeal to EPA for yet more time.

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USDA Submits Poultry Rule to OMB: The Facts

Yesterday, USDA submitted its draft final rule on poultry slaughter “modernization” to OMB for formal review.  This rule, as regular readers of CPR Blog will remember, would remove USDA inspectors from poultry slaughtering facilities, transfer some of their food safety and quality control duties to plant employees, and allow the plants to increase their line speeds to an astonishing 175 birds per minute.  On top of that, the rule allows each plant to develop its own testing protocols for E. coli, salmonella, campylobacter and other food-safety concerns.  It’s the foxes guarding the henhouse, for sure.

Along with many of our allies in the worker health and safety and food safety communities, we have been urging USDA since early 2012 to go back to the drawing board with this ill-advised rule.  USDA published its proposed rule in January 2012 without consulting with its inspection advisory committee, without holding public meetings to solicit other stakeholders’ views, and – especially galling – without seeking input from OSHA.

In the two and a half years since USDA proposed the rule, we’ve seen a steady stream of bad news for the proponents of the rule:

  • April 2013: NIOSH releases an interim Health Hazard Evaluation (HHE) report on a poultry slaughter facility that was attempting to get special permission to adopt the “modernized” inspection scheme before the final rule goes into effect.  Interim HHE reports rarely surface publicly, but this one had such striking results that its release was inevitable.  Among other findings, NIOSH discovered that 42 percent of worker-participants had evidence of carpal tunnel syndrome and 41 percent of worker-participants worked in jobs above industry standards for hand activity and force.

  • April 2013: Kimberly Kindy, writing in the Washington Post, highlights the tragic story of a USDA inspector who died of kidney and lung failure potentially linked to the chemical brew that was used to disinfect chicken at the plant where he worked.  Plants are likely to increase the use of these chemicals if the rule goes forward.

  • September 2013: GAO criticizes USDA for failing to thoroughly evaluate the performance of pilot projects that USDA had initiated to test the validity of its “modernization” proposal.  In its characteristically dry tone, GAO concluded: “USDA may not have assurance that its evaluation of the pilot project at young chicken plants provides the information necessary to support the proposed rule…”

  • October 2013: Kimberly Kindy, writing in the Washington Post, highlights the potential for increased animal abuse problems if poultry slaughter facilities increase their line speeds as the rule would allow.

  • March 2014: NIOSH releases its final HHE report on the facility described above, noting an “alarming prevalence” of carpal tunnel syndrome among workers in the plant and cautioning that “increasing the number of birds processed per worker may result in an even higher prevalence of carpal tunnel syndrome than seen in this NIOSH evaluation.”

  • April 2014: The NIOSH final report led to an “interagency throwdown,” in which USDA officials tried to downplay the findings only to have their claims repudiated by NIOSH’s Director, Dr. John Howard, who called USDA’s spin-attempt “misleading.”

For workers and consumers, this rule presents huge risks.  USDA has been operating in a black box since proposing the rule in early 2012, so it is unclear what changes might have been made to answer the concerns raised by the public interest community and other government agencies.  OMB should send this rule back to USDA with a “return letter” that instructs the agency to at least release the draft publicly, if not start from scratch.

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