What Every Consumer Needs to Know Before Taking Another Bite of Chicken

by Deborah Berkowitz

With the World Health Organization’s recent report linking consumption of red meat to cancer, shoppers may be hunting for the “good” protein in the grocery aisles. But before turning reflexively to chicken, consumers need to know that the industry that sells America’s most popular meat—8.5 billion chickens every year, with growing profits—is dangerously cutting corners when it comes to taking care of its workers.

A blistering new report by the non-profit Oxfam America highlighted the unsafe working conditions and climate of fear more than 250,000 poultry workers face across the U.S. At the same time, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced a new targeted inspection program for poultry plants in southern states aimed at prompting employers to protect workers from getting sick or injured on the job.

Today, the poultry industry should be announcing a thorough and transparent investigation into its practices. Instead, it has once again signaled that it is not prepared to change, and is still hiding behind faulty statistics and hollow statements.

As a senior official at OSHA, I was keenly aware of how these companies fail to implement the most basic of safety precautions to protect their workers. From deep cuts and amputations to painful musculoskeletal disorders of the hand and wrist—resulting from thousands upon thousands of repetitive stressful motions with scissors and knives—workers suffer serious injuries every day.

Further, the industry has adopted morally and legally questionable practices of intimidating workers, and discouraging them from reporting injuries and seeking medical care. The poultry business model rests on very high turnover: plants churn through dozens of new workers every week, as people leave in pain and with nowhere to turn.

Sadly, these injuries are not isolated incidents or accidents. Simply put, they are preventable. They occur when, in the pursuit of profits, managers put production over workers.

After the Oxfam report was released, the industry trade group trotted out its usual response to outside criticism. They put forth self-reported statistics that claim injury rates are down 80 percent from 20 years ago, and boasted of an “outstanding record of improvement in employee health and safety—on par with all manufacturing.”

This flies in the face of several recent government investigations. In September, OSHA fined a poultry company in Illinois $1.4 million for major safety lapses, including several that resulted in a 17-year-old boy losing his leg from the knee down. He’d been on the job a few weeks, and has been unable to return to work. Then, they fired him. The head of the OSHA office conducting the investigation said, “In the past 25 years, the company had done little to change a corporate culture where workers are endangered.”

Other recent government investigations documented numerous wrongful practices common in poultry plants: Workers are terminated shortly after reporting an injury. Workers who complain of debilitating pain are never sent to a doctor for a diagnosis (some go many, many times to the company health station). Workers are actively discouraged from reporting symptoms; they may get demerit points for reporting, and may be fired if they accumulate enough points. Companies turn their first aid stations—where workers are going for help—into effective mechanisms to prevent injury reporting.

Workers suffer blows to their dignity as well: this summer, a poultry company in Delaware was cited for denying workers access to use the bathroom. The Oxfam report goes into detail about workers urinating on themselves or wearing diapers—hard to believe in today’s economy, let alone in a food processing plant.

And there’s more: two recent investigations into the poultry industry by the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health documented high rates of serious injuries among line workers. In 2014, two government agencies sent a joint letter to almost 300 poultry plants about high injury rates—particularly, crippling musculoskeletal disorders. The letter reported that the CDC had just completed an investigation “at one poultry processing plant and reported that more than 40 percent of production line employees had evidence of carpal tunnel syndrome.”

What is most appalling, for me and other experts, is that potential solutions are simple and inexpensive. Implement basic safety measures, provide access to proper medical treatment, and allow bathroom breaks.

Poultry workers are among the most vulnerable people in the country. Most are minorities and immigrants; some are newly resettled refugees. They are pursuing the American dream—working hard, arduous jobs—all to help put food on our tables.

Shame on the industry for not taking care of the people who do the work to feed the world and build a profitable enterprise. There is no excuse.

Berkowitz is a senior fellow at the National Employment Law Project. She formerly served as a senior policy adviser and chief of staff at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Read the original piece in The Hill.


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