Poultry workers, chicken industry lobbyists and food-safety advocates have been converging on Capitol Hill in recent weeks with dueling efforts to either boost or kill a proposal to overhaul the way the $60 billion-a-year poultry industry operates processing plants.
The latest push came Thursday when civil rights and worker-safety groups arranged for poultry workers to meet with lawmakers and administration officials to warn against the proposed acceleration of processing-line speeds and to share their accounts of injuries being caused at current speeds.
Opponents of the proposed changes are trying to play catch-up with the efforts of the poultry industry. The National Chicken Council has been spending an average of more than $500,000 annually lobbying Congress, according to lobbying records, five times the group’s average spending in the years before the U.S. Agriculture Department began working in earnest on the proposed plan in 2011.
The USDA was expected to finalize the plan last summer, but some members of Congress, along with worker and food-safety groups, raised concerns over provisions that could increase processing line speeds by 25 percent and reduce the number of government inspectors by 40 percent. In exchange, the poultry industry would be required to take steps to reduce food-borne pathogens, such as salmonella.
Now, after months of delays, the agency’s proposal has picked up steam again. One sign that the Obama administration is inclined to support the plan is that the president’s budget, due for release next week, is expected to reflect government cost-savings arising from reduced inspections, according to several lobbyists and Hill staffers who have been briefed on the issue.
According to the USDA’s regulatory agenda, the agency hopes to finalize the plan in April. But in an e-mail to The Washington Post on Thursday, the USDA said it “cannot predict a timeline for when it may move forward.”
In nearly a dozen meetings around Washington, plant workers described what they consider the breakneck pace of current line speeds. They detailed how this affects their work, which involves repeating the same movements thousands of times a day: chopping chicken carcasses into pieces, carving and yanking meat off bones, and packaging them for consumers.
“My hands really began to hurt was when I switched to deboning,” 59-year-old Salvadora Roman said through an interpreter at a Capitol Hill news conference. “We have to pull the bone up and take the meat off — really rip it from the bone. . . . The real problem here is the lines go really fast.”
Currently, plants run processing lines at a maximum rate of 140 birds a minute. Under the USDA’s proposed plan, line speeds can rise to 175 birds a minute.
Roman was surrounded at the news conference by leaders from the Congressional Black Caucus and the NAACP, who say that work conditions inside the poultry plants are a civil rights concern because the majority of employees are minorities.
“It is a shame that we are dealing with this as we celebrate the 5oth anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), a member of the Black Caucus. “We are demanding that the White House stop the rule.”
During this week’s meetings, worker and civil rights groups cited government data that show 39 percent of meat and poultry workers are Hispanic, 16.3 percent are black and 7.8 percent are Asian. They also pointed to a government study and a separate academic analysis that placed rates of carpal tunnel syndrome for workers at more than 40 percent.
But the poultry industry has taken issue with these dire accounts. In a white paper circulated in Congress, the National Chicken Council said the industry has reported a steady decline in injury rates over the past three decades. “The poultry industry is proud of the advancements it has made in worker safety,” the paper says.
And the industry has also been citing the latest worker-injury data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, showing that poultry worker injuries are in the single digits.
“You’re more likely to get injured or become ill selling an RV to Cousin Eddie than you are working in a poultry-processing plant,” council spokesman Tom Super said last fall in a post on the MeatingPlace blog.
The chicken industry has repeatedly turned to industry trade publications such as the MeatingPlace to sway editorial boards, seek space for opinion pieces and to post blog entries. The pieces are then circulated on the Hill. Worker and food-safety groups have adopted a similar strategy.
The National Chicken Council says it also favors the proposal because additional sanitation procedures and safety tests will be added, which it thinks will drive down salmonella rates. A study by the Government Accountability Office has questioned the reliability of data that predict that rates will drop. Super, the spokesman, declined interview requests for this article.
To help win support for the proposed overhaul in processing plants, the council has publicly thanked Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) for agreeing to create the Senate Chicken Caucus to support industry efforts. Coons announced the establishment of the caucus last fall at the trade industry’s annual conference in Washington. In an October statement, Coons said the caucus was created to give “America’s chicken producers a platform to better inform legislators” and “to promote policy solutions that help their businesses grow and thrive.”
Eight months earlier, the council also thanked House members for reviving their Congressional Chicken Caucus.
Both caucuses have pressed the USDA to move on the proposed inspection system.
While the council acknowledges that it has sharply increased its lobbying in recent years, the group said that its advocacy efforts are not focused on one issue and that it has multiple concerns and issues in Congress. Lobbying disclosure reports do not break down the amount that is spent by a group on any particular issue.
On the other side of the debate, millions of dollars have also been spent by more than a dozen worker rights organizations, food-safety groups and unions, which are jointly fighting the proposed regulations. These groups also said they have multiple concerns and issues on Capitol Hill.