Now would be the right time for leaders at the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to step back and nix their dazzlingly reckless rush to proceed with a rule that provides for stepped-up poultry industry self-regulation – dubbed "Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection" – at chicken slaughter plants, which are concentrated in states in the South.
The latest indicator that the USDA plan is a major step backward is that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), part of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has offered a rare public rebuke of a sister agency for misinterpreting its research findings on poultry slaughter line speeds. Yesterday, NIOSH issued a letter criticizing the administrator of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service for claiming that the health agency's study of slaughter operations in South Carolina did not recommend a slowing of line speeds. "This statement is misleading," the NIOSH letter says. "Line speed affects the periodicity of repetitive and forceful movements, which are key causes of musculoskeletal disorders. Many of the NIOSH recommendations address the design of job tasks to minimize these factors." The USDA, said NIOSH, had cherry-picked details from the study and was wrong to say that NIOSH's research showed that increasing line speed "was not a significant factor in worker safety."
It's sad but evident that the USDA intentionally misread NIOSH's study in its zeal to create additional political momentum for a rule that few people outside the poultry industry want or support. In fact, consumer, worker safety and animal welfare advocates have all raised concerns about the proposal, submitting nearly 200,000 signatures in protest. And 68 members of Congress, led by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., have co-signed a letter to the USDA urging the administration to withdraw its proposed rule until all stakeholder concerns are fully addressed.
The Washington Post has reported that line speeds are already too fast and that at least 1 million chickens are not properly stunned or slaughtered and drown to death when they are dumped into the scalding tank. This also jeopardizes the food supply, as the drowning birds may inhale the water contaminated with fecal material into their bodies. Speeding up the line even more would compound inhumane slaughter and food safety risks at poultry plants.
It's particularly troubling that USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and his colleagues would put their energies into fast-tracking this proposal when there are other rules waiting for action that would demonstrably improve food safety and animal protection. It's time to put this rule on the shelf and start focusing on standards that actually further food safety and animal protection. One rule that's long overdue is to close the downer calf loophole by requiring immediate humane euthanasia for downer calves, just as the agency requires now for adult downer cows. We've been waiting for over four years for the agency to issue this new policy, and we've conducted two undercover operations that reveal the worst sort of animal cruelty at calf slaughter plants.
More than half a century since The HSUS and other groups successfully made the case for a humane slaughter law, the USDA's failure to include birds under its protective aegis remains a true scandal, and one of the greatest sources of animal suffering and food safety risk in our nation. Moreover, if the USDA wishes to take on the issue of poultry slaughter and food safety in a serious way, it should be advocating that birds be protected under the terms of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act which requires that animals be rendered insensible to pain before slaughter. The USDA does not consider birds to be covered by the Act, even though chickens and turkeys represent 95 percent of all animals sent to slaughter. Speeding up line speeds will only compound the birds’ misery, and produce more food safety problems and occupational injuries for workers engaged in extraordinarily demanding, repetitive motions as they handle and dismember birds by the billions on the slaughter lines.