Making our food less safe

July 30, 2012

Proposed changes to poultry inspection will make an already dangerous industry even more so, reports Russell Pryor.

"THIS IS a very bad idea," one inspector recently said of proposed changes to federal regulations of the chicken industry. The inspector has much to worry about. And so do 200,000 Southern poultry workers and millions of consumers.

The politics of austerity are boring their way into the food system. A brief overview of the current crisis and its historical context suggests that this is nothing new. It does, however, provide insights into how our side can fight for safer food.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) put forward its new plans for poultry inspections in January 2012. Under the proposal, federal inspections staff inside the nation's 300 poultry processing plants will be drastically cut. Inspectors surviving the cuts will be essentially prevented from doing their jobs.

Current regulations allow four inspectors to staff lines with speeds of up to 140 birds per minute (bpm) or about 35 bpm per inspector. Under the new plan, the number of inspectors will be reduced from four to one, while the bpm per inspector will be increased from 35 to 175. "At that speed, it's all a blur," an inspector told ABC News.

Inside a poultry-processing plant
Inside a poultry-processing plant

A lobbyist at Food and Water Watch wryly noted, "What they're proposing is a joke...One inspector can't possibly do this at 175 birds a minute."

Despite USDA and industry protests that the new plan is perfectly safe and simply represents a "modernization" of an outdated inspections system, USDA inspections staff know better.

The claim that the traditional system of visual inspections is inadequate for dealing with pathogens and bacterial contamination has merit. Salmonella, the most common bacteria associated with foodborne illness as a result of chicken consumption, is, of course, invisible to the human eye. Reorganizing the inspections system to better deal with such potential threats sounds like a good idea, right?

The USDA and the industry apparently agree. The fact that their proposal offers no real plan (not to mention funding) for more vigorous inspections is apparently of no consequence. A 15 percent spike in salmonella cases in the past six years is also of little concern.

Safer food is not the issue. It's about cutting corners.

WHILE PATHOGENS and bacteria are only visible under a microscope, fecal contamination is all too visible to the human eye. And so are tumors, lesions and puss-filled sores.

The USDA and the industry argue that processing plant workers are perfectly capable of weeding out contaminated birds. Of course they are, but they work for the companies. The difference between federal employees and company employees is, on a basic level, who foots the bill.

Although inspectors are routinely bullied and threatened by firms they are tasked with regulating, they enjoy a degree of autonomy that poultry workers do not. Already among the worst paid workers operating in the most dangerous factories in the country, the companies know that having their own employees "inspecting" birds will allow much more control over the birds that "pass."

Under the current system, workers are often reprimanded if they try to remove diseased birds from the processing line. There is little reason to think this will change. Indeed, a Government Accountability Office study of test plants already using the new system found the factories "did not meet the safety standard for the presence of fecal material, which could contain harmful bacteria such as E. coli."

The real issue is profits. In the first three years, the USDA boasts that it will save close to $90 million with its reduction in its unionized inspections staff. The industry, on the other hand, will save an estimated $250 million annually. Increased line speeds translate into higher profit margins, pure and simple. The National Chicken Council, the industry's lobbying arm, is backing the new plan with all its might. And its leaders are simply regurgitating the official line put forward by the USDA and the Obama administration.

The only thing new about proposed changes to the inspections system is how far they go. An alliance between the industry and the USDA has deep roots. Indeed, the industry itself owes its very existence to research on housing, disease control and poultry nutrition conducted at USDA experimental farms and public universities beginning in the 1890s. The industrial chicken is as much a political creature as anything else.

When mandatory federal inspections were first proposed for the poultry industry in 1956, the positions taken by the USDA and most industry elites were virtually indistinguishable. The push for inspections emerged out of a unionization drive among East Texas poultry workers in 1954. The poultry industry and its allies quickly recognized that if they did not act fast they would soon have a system of regulations they could not control.

The Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen also recognized the importance of the fight. Union leaders sought allies among labor and consumer groups. Working with truckers, retail workers and consumers, Amalgamated leaders understood the chicken industry as part of a larger food system and acted accordingly.

Flexing its postwar political muscle, the union also found important congressional allies. In the congressional debates, though, the industry and the USDA carried the day. The need for federal inspections was not an issue. Nothing resembling the Obama plan was even discussed. All sides recognized the idiocy of self-inspection.

The real debate was over USDA control. Even in the 1950s, the labor movement and consumer activists understood the simple fact that the USDA was a federal front for agribusiness. In 1957, Congress passed the Poultry Products Inspection Act and, in a nod to the industry, placed the new system under the USDA.

Despite the industry victory, even limited regulations are often better than none at all. Working conditions improved in the processing plants. And chicken became safer.

ALREADY IN a precarious position in the industry, though, farmers suffered. In all its efforts to consider its campaign in terms of a food system, Amalgamated leaders failed to figure in farmers. Local unions urged national leaders to make protections for farm families a centerpiece of the campaign but to no avail.

By the late 1950s, most chicken farmers in the South were little more than sharecroppers. They raised birds on short-term contracts and often took on multiple jobs to keep their farms afloat. Debt and dependency was the norm. Farmers became, for all intents and purposes, workers themselves.

The very nature of chicken farmers' work-- raising tens of thousands of birds in total confinement--ensured the persistence of pathogens of various stripes that would, provided the inspectors did their job, end up condemned on the processing line. Farmers, rather than the industry, bore the cost. If the union did not think about farmers, then the industry certainly did. And, again, it was all about profits.

Amalgamated's plan to use the inspections campaign to unionize Southern poultry workers fell flat. Its inroads remained limited. The decentralized, highly competitive character of the Southern industry made organizing difficult. Top-down, undemocratic modes of organizing that failed to take into account the needs of the predominantly African American women who labored on the processing lines made matters even worse.

That the inspections system alienated chicken farmers often cut the union off from what should have been a secure base of support. One East Texas organizer recognized as much. "If anyone needs organization, it is the guy who is at the mercy of the processor," he observed.

Though the labor-consumer alliance persisted into the 1960s, it was rife with contradictions and could not ensure effective regulations indefinitely. Amalgamated's failure in the South and its leaders' reluctance to mobilize at the grassroots limited its power. Union leaders preferred to talk things over with their congressional allies.

Consumer groups like Ralph Nader's Public Citizen operated along similar lines. A potent force in American politics in the late 1960s, Nader had industry elites and USDA officials terrified in a way the union never did. Still, Public Citizen's mode of organizing was top-down. Much like Amalgamated, it acted on consumers' behalf rather than organizing at the grassroots. Lobbying was key.

In 1970, the labor-consumer alliance scored a final victory against the USDA and the industry when it successfully blocked plans to allow cancerous chickens into the food supply. Exponential growth in the chicken industry over the next four decades took place at a time when both the labor and consumer movements suffered decline. Absent grassroots activism, there was little hope in securing a federal inspections system that could protect workers, farmers and consumers.

By 1981, the industry was in a position to cash in its economic fortunes for political influence. Gone were the days of intense competition. Corporate mergers were the name of the game.

The incoming Reagan administration was more than happy to help them. In a leaked memo one high-ranking USDA official observed, "The political climate is such that the special interest groups supporting the meat and poultry industry have won and now have the ear of Washington. They 'paid their dues' and are now in the driver's seat...The consumer base has disintegrated. We must be versatile and adjust to this new challenge."

ADJUSTMENTS INDEED. Since the 1970s, poultry workers' wages have continued to stagnate at about 60 percent of the average for manufacturing jobs. And their working conditions also continued to deteriorate--working in processing plants remains one of the most dangerous jobs in America.

An estimated 59 percent of all poultry workers--now mostly immigrants--suffer from work-related diseases such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Increased line speeds under the new inspections plan will simply make a bad situation worse for workers.

Physical danger in the factories was and is premised on financial danger on the farms. Rural families raising chickens have become even more enmeshed in cycles of debt and dependence. Bankruptcy was and is common.

Unsurprisingly, chicken has become less and less safe not only for consumers but also for everyone and everything involved. Federal spending on meat and poultry inspections declined from an average of $14.74 per thousand pounds inspected and passed in the 1980s to just $9.36 per thousand pounds inspected and passed by 2011.

Austerity is unhealthy. Record poultry recalls in 2011 and spikes in salmonella outbreaks since 2006 are only part of the story. The health impact of raising nearly 8 billion chickens each year are rivaled only by the social and environmental impact the industry has on the rural Southern communities it has transformed over the past half-century.

The proposed changes to the inspections system introduced by the Obama administration earlier this year will, in all likelihood, go ahead as planned. Inside Congress, the changes are virtually unopposed.

The limited media coverage given the plan has been, surprisingly, quite critical. From the Washington Post and New York Times to ABC News and the Los Angeles Times, major media outlets have routinely condemned deregulation as a disaster waiting to happen. Still, none have made a serious effort to consider the problem historically. It is simply a policy question. And, more than that, it is an issue for consumers. After all, the market will save us. Right?

No, not really. A careful look at the inspection system's history, suggests very different set of conclusions. The proposed changes are, if nothing else, the logical consequences of unchecked corporate power allied with a friendly federal bureaucracy. It is structural.

The only forces that can address the problem of unsafe chicken are workers, farmers and consumers organized at the grassroots. The industry will continue to prioritize profits over social and ecological concerns and the USDA will continue its alliance with agribusiness.

Whoever wins this November will matter little. Farmers raise chickens; workers process, transport and stock grocery display cases with chicken; and consumers buy, cook and eat the bird. Market solutions have failed to "fix" the banking system or much anything else. There is no reason to think that the market will fix the chicken problem.

Organized workers and farmers, on the other hand, can, by their very place in the production process, force change. And organized consumers must be an ally in that effort. Demanding food without feces on it is certainly admirable on its own, but safe food over the long haul means organization.

It also means living wages, job security and safe working conditions for workers in factories and on farms. The industry cannot and will not self-regulate. Tougher inspections are needed. In short, rather than a policy fix, what we need is a social movement.

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