At the poultry plant where Navarro worked, company officials rejected the notion that chemicals killed him.
During the investigation at the plant, inspectors and plant workers offered a raft of complaints. They said they suffered from irritation to their respiratory system, two reported “coughing up blood” and still others had “various skin diseases,” an OSHA report said.
The OSHA report cited chemicals as the suspected cause of the workers’ ailments.
Faster pace, fewer inspectors
If the White House signs off on the USDA’s proposed regulations as expected, poultry plants could speed up their slaughter lines later this year. The maximum speed for chickens would increase from 140 birds per minute to 175 per minute, and for turkeys, from 45 birds to 55 per minute. Workers, who already often complain of carpal tunnel and other musculoskeletal disorders, may have to pluck, cut and sort birds even faster.
At the same time, the new regulations would reduce the number of federal health inspectors in the plants by as much as 40 percent.
The proposed rules grew out of a USDA pilot program, which agency officials said was designed to enhance food safety by reducing pathogens. There are financial incentives for both the USDA and the industry: The agency expects to save $90 million during the next three years through staff reductions, and poultry plants could save more than $200 million annually.
The combination of faster processing and fewer government eyeballs means that companies will increasingly rely on chemicals to keep the poultry free of contaminants, according to interviews with six current and former USDA inspectors who have worked in a range of plants across the country where slaughter line speeds have accelerated.
“They don’t talk about it publicly, but the line speeds are so fast, they are not spotting contamination, like fecal matter, as the birds pass by,” said Phyllis McKelvey, who worked as a USDA poultry inspector for 14 years until she retired in 2010. “Their attitude is, let the chemicals do the work.”
In plants where line speeds have increased, more chemical treatments have been added. Plants that used as few as one or two rinses, sprays or soaks now use as many as four or more.