Taking Exception

In Meatpacking, Progress to Be Proud Of

By J. Patrick Boyle
Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The picture presented in the Aug. 3 op-ed by Lance Compa and Jamie Fellner ["Meatpacking's Human Toll"] bears no resemblance to the reality of today's U.S. meat and poultry industry, or to our documented and successful efforts to enhance workplace safety.

Sadly, when it comes to reporting and commenting on the U.S. meat industry, we live with the legacy of a book that was a landmark novel when it was written 100 years ago: "The Jungle," by Upton Sinclair. This moving fictional account of an immigrant's plight in a number of industries is required reading for many journalism and sociology students, and it seems to color their views about the modern meat industry. It's a bit like relying on "Oliver Twist" for a picture of modern child care.

Ours is a labor-intensive industry, and we need people -- people we often have a hard time finding because of low unemployment -- to run our plants. Like most industries, we benefit when our workers stay and when they remain healthy. Each time we have to replace a valued, experienced employee, the cost of recruiting, hiring, and job and safety training for a new employee can easily exceed $5,000.

Moreover, data from the government's Bureau of Labor Statistics show that since 1990 our concerted efforts to enhance workplace safety have brought a 67 percent decline in total injuries and illnesses. The data also indicate that our workplaces are substantially safer than those in over a dozen other industries, including light-truck manufacturing, foundries, manufactured and mobile homes, cutlery and flatware manufacturing, soft drink manufacturing, and automobile manufacturing.

Union membership among meatpacking employees is significantly higher than the national average, contrary to the op-ed's claims that our industry is "anti-union." The United Food and Commercial Workers union estimates that it represents 60 percent of the red-meat-packing workforce. Compare that with the private-sector union representation average of 7.9 percent, and it's clear that our industry is anything but anti-union.

And contrary to the scene that Compa and Fellner apparently seek to conjure with claims that "Faster! Faster!" is our industry's production byword, line speeds are based on a thorough assessment by systems engineers that ensures that tasks can be adequately and safely performed by a worker in a prescribed time. This is essential to maximizing the value of meat cuts, value that can easily be reduced if excessive line speeds cause shoddy workmanship. The fact that injury and illness rates in the meatpacking industry have been declining steadily over the past 15 years clearly demonstrates that staffing levels are appropriate for given line speeds.

In addition, U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations correlate a plant's line speed to the number of federal inspectors necessary to oversee the operation and establish a range of maximum and minimum speeds within each plant. Line speeds, as well as food safety regulations, are monitored and enforced by nearly 8,000 federal inspectors who are in plants at all times. Plants cannot simply turn a dial and increase line speeds. We challenge anyone to name another industry that has this kind of continuous oversight. Obviously, the notion that a plant can, at will, operate "Faster! Faster!" is precluded by federal rules, contrary to industrial engineering job design, at odds with maximizing product values, and inconsistent with producing safe food.

If Compa and Fellner can't accept the idea that we do the right thing just because it's right and we have a strong collective conscience, maybe they can believe that we do it because it's also financially beneficial and required by federal regulations. Either way, we are proud of our workplace safety improvements and committed to further progress.

The writer is president and chief executive of the American Meat Institute.


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