Did USDA mislead the public, Congress about injury risks for poultry workers?

April 14

This Dec. 2, 2008, file photo shows a chicken farm just outside the city limits of Pittsburg, Tex. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

It’s being called an ‘interagency throw down.’

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture officials are publicly feuding over the results of a study that found the same double-digit injury rates among poultry plant workers both before and after processing lines had accelerated.

USDA officials are pointing to the study as evidence that a new poultry inspection program it hopes to finalize — which would allow line speeds to rise by as much as 25 percent — would not cause further injuries to workers.

In a March 26 blog post, USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service director Al Almanza said the study shows line speed increases are “not a significant factor in worker safety.” USDA officials have offered a similar interpretation to members of Congress and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights over the past several weeks.

However, NIOSH Director John Howard chastised USDA officials, last week, saying he was “quite surprised” by the agency’s assertions. “It’s impossible to draw a conclusion about the impact of line speed changes on worker health” from the NIOSH study,” Howard said in a letter to Almanza, adding that to do so “is misleading.”

Howard said NIOSH “found an alarming 42% prevalence of carpal tunnel syndrome” among workers during its first assessment at a plant in South Carolina. When NIOSH returned a second time, some 10 months later, they were not surprised to find the injury rates were about the same. Too little time had passed, Howard said, and the plant had made important adjustments, actually reducing the number of birds each worker had to process from 180 birds per minute to 175 birds per minute.

“Given what NIOSH observed upon its second visit relative to changes made to the production lines, NIOSH would not have expected to find an increase or a decrease in musculoskeletal symptom prevalence,” Howard wrote in his April 7 letter.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, (D-Conn.) — who opposes the new inspection system — has also waded into the interagency fight over the study. “As I said at the time, this report does not prove what USDA claimed it proved,” DeLauro said in a statement. “Director Howard’s letter calls attention to the fact we need more, and better, data before moving forward with changes to our poultry processing system that could harm the public health.”

Howard’s letter was also posted last week on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site. On Friday, and over the weekend, worker rights groups, animal welfare organizations and unions that oppose the proposed poultry inspection program e-mailed the letter to its members and to the media.

“Inter-agency Throw Down!” wrote Public Citizen spokesman Ben Somberg in an e-mail that linked to the letter.

“The USDA deliberately misread worker health safety research in order to fast-track a rule that provides for stepped-up poultry industry self-regulation,” wrote Vaishali Honawar, an editor with the Humane Society of the United States.

“USDA is using this study to justify the poultry modernization rule but NIOSH clearly disagrees,” wrote Tim Schlittner, spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) in e-mail.

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is not backing down from its take on the study.

In response to Post inquires about the squabble, the USDA provided the following prepared statement: “The fact is that the NIOSH study showed, and NIOSH’s follow-up letter confirms, that increased line speed at this plant did not result in an increase in injuries.”

USDA officials said they came to their conclusions based in part on language from the NIOSH study, which said, “The prevalence of hand and wrist symptoms (pain, burning, numbness, or tingling) was similar for both evaluations.”

Agency officials also said they expect that the changes that were made at the plant in the study, which reduced the number of birds workers had to process, would also take place at plants that adopted the new inspection program. “The report also illustrates that a plant can adjust its processing so that increased line speeds do not necessarily lead to more birds being processed per worker, another fact FSIS has continued to point out,” the USDA statement said.

The new inspection program was first proposed two years ago, but it has not been finalized due in part to opposition from members of Congress, unions, worker and animal rights groups.

The proposal has been controversial because about 40 percent of government inspectors would be replaced with plant employees, leading some groups to say it would largely privatize poultry inspections. Also, animal rights and worker rights groups are concerned that conditions for both the birds and the workers would become worse if line speeds accelerated.

Kimberly Kindy is a government accountability reporter at The Washington Post.
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