More than 100 farm, food safety, worker rights, animal welfare and environmental groups sent a joint letter Thursday to the White House, asking President Obama to reject the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s proposal to make substantial changes to the way 9 billion chickens and turkeys are processed annually in plants across America.
“The department is promoting this change as an opportunity to modernize the inspection program,” the letter said. “But what it boils down to is an attempt to cut USDA’s workforce, by putting the health and safety of consumers and workers at risk.”
The groups also delivered 219,785 petitions against the proposal.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed the new inspection and processing system in early 2012. Both the agency and the National Chicken Council say they believe increased sanitization checks and testing for bacteria will reduce contamination and make food safer.
The groups behind Thursday’s letter said they are mainly concerned with two provisions. One would remove 40 percent of USDA inspectors from processing lines and replace them with plant employees, which the groups called a move toward “deregulation.” Another would allow plants to speed up processing lines by 25 percent, which the groups said would increase repetitive stress injuries, like carpal tunnel syndrome, among plant workers.
The letter follows a major lobbying effort last week on Capitol Hill, led by the Southern Poverty Law Center, that involved a series of meetings with members of Congress where nine poultry plant workers described the pain and health problems they attribute to performing the same task – like cutting the wings off birds – thousands of times in a single work shift.
The NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus both asked Obama last week to kill the proposal.
The president has not taken a public position on the new inspection system, but in his 2015 proposed budget this week, he included the anticipated cost savings from the plan that would come from cutting USDA inspectors.
In a prepared statement, USDA officials said they do not believe worker injuries will increase, but if problems arise, they will work with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to address them. “This is an issue we take very seriously, and we would not put forward a proposal if we thought it would have a negative impact on worker safety,” the statement said.
The USDA has also received dozens of letters, both for and against the inspection plan. The USDA said six of the letters have been from members of Congress, with four against, one in favor and one that was neutral about the proposal.