November 22, 2010 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 9Comment

Turkey Day is on the way. Workers employed in U.S. turkey processing plants are asking for your help to secure safer working conditions. These workers handle about 30 turkeys per minute—30 turkeys per minute—on the production line. The faster the production line moves, the faster the workers have to move to make their cuts. If they can’t keep up, they won’t be working there for long. Over a 10-hour shift, workers have to make more than 20,000 cuts on the turkey carcasses—20,000 cuts. At that pace, it’s easy to imagine the opportunities for contamination of the meat—-the turkey you’ll be putting on your Thanksgiving table.

The workers’ experience also tells them that the speed of the production line and other risk factors, not only puts consumers at risk, but causes them to suffer acute and chronic injuries. As a 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted:

“The work is physically demanding, repetitive, and often requires working in extreme temperatures… Workers often stand for long periods of time on production lines that move very quickly, wielding knives or other cutting instruments used to trim or remove portions of the carcasses. Conditions at the plant can also be loud, wet, dark, and slippery. ….Meat and poultry workers sustain a range of injuries, including cuts, burns, and repetitive stress injuries…”

Turkey processing plant workers are asking YOU to call the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service at 202-720-9113. Tell the person answering the phone to compel meat processing companies to slow the speed of the line. USDA should do it for consumers and for the workers.

One might think that an occupational hazard like production line speed would fall under OSHA’s purview, but the agency has yet to come up with an enforcement or regulatory strategy to address health risks associated with it. Given that USDA inspectors are inside slaughterhouses and production lines everyday, the poultry processing workers must believe that they’ll make more progress trying to improve USDA rules than OSHA ones.*

The average American who buys a turkey for their Thanksgiving feast may not realize the top turkey-producing state is Minnesota, followed by North Carolina, Missouri, Arkansas, and Virginia. The big turkey processor in Minnesota is Hormel Foods’ Jennie-O. The largest vertically integrated producer in the U.S. (i.e., controlling the means production from the growers on up) is Butterball. Its plant in Mt. Olive, NC is the world’s largest turkey processing plant.

The campaign “Safe food comes from safe workers” is being supported by the Center for New Community a national organization committed to building community, justice, and equality. The intersection of food and justice has long been an issue for the Center’s Executive Director Rev. Dave Ostendorf:

In the midst of all the manifestations of the so-called “food movement” in the U.S.–organic, slow, sustainable, natural, whole, healthy, urban, sovereign–is a glaring absence of analysis of the structure of race that pervades the entire food system, from the ground to the grocer. Wherever food is produced, picked, processed, packed, or purveyed low wage workers of color predominate in the hard, dangerous, low-wage jobs that feed a nation built on cheap food, cheap labor, and rampant exploitation of food workers within a toxic framework of abiding racial structures spanning rural and urban America alike.”**

Last year, Nebraska Applesead released a report called “The Speed Kills You,” that captures the daily struggle of meatpacking plant workers. One of the most telling indictments that meat companies actually know that the line speed is ridiculously fast, is managements’ practice of slowing down the conveyor belts when outsider are inside the plant. Not long after reading this in the Nebraska Applesead’s report, I heard the same thing from workers employed in turkey production plants in Iowa:

“it’s always a better day on the line when there are visitors on site.”

They describe the childlike “procedures” the women line workers have to follow in order to use the bathroom during a workshift. Similar degrading conditions that also affect a person’s overall health were described in the NE Applesead’s report:

“…supervisors screaming, employers’ apparent indifferences to safety concerns, and a failure to treat workers as human beings. ‘They scream at you, they humiliate you.’ ‘They scream at you a lot.’ …’I know of three people who urinated and pooped in their pants and afterwards they [supervisors] just laugh at you.'”

I think the turkey plant workers believe this dose of reality will motivate consumers to support their quest for a safer work environment. Call the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service at 202-720-9113. Tell the person answering the phone to compel meat processing companies to slow the speed of the line. Do it for the workers who brought the turkey to your Thanksgiving table.

*Note: One question OSHA might have to answer if it tried to address line speed as an injury risk is: if X speed is associated with Y injury risk, at what new (lower) speed would you see a significant reduction in the risk?

**Note: Refer also the American Public Health Association’s policy “Toward a Healthy, Sustainable Food System.”

9 thoughts on “At turkey time, remember safe food and a safe workplace go hand-in-hand

  1. I cannot help but think of the psychological impact of working at a facility like this has on a person. 30 turkeys per minute? Agh.

    Nonetheless, we cannot rely on USDA, OSHA or other agencies to patrol these plants. After all, most of the large corporations have the government in their left pocket, so they are allowed to get away with these horrid conditions.

    This thanksgiving, think about the slaughter house of your biochemically fattened turkey.

  2. Nobody ever seems to think about the process that it takes to get food from the farms to a kitchen table, not only at Thanksgiving, but all year round. People think about food in the context of buying, cooking, and eating, never questioning what it cost to get it into a grocery store. This issue of working conditions is one that the common consumer never seems to realize, as most people probably think of working rights and unions as aspects of an early 19th century, an Industrial Revolution era. But in actuality many of the same issues still exist.

  3. These workers handle about 30 turkeys per minute…

    Ugh. This is why the US industrial food production system has become the cesspit that it has — profits above public safety and food quality.

    There was a time when you could have your hamburger rare, when eating unwashed lettuce from the field was OK, and when dropping a raw egg into the blender with a banana and orange juice was considered a healthy breakfast. No more. Even the defenders of the existing corrupt system admit that our food is filthy and must be irradiated, overheated and sterilized before it is safe to eat.

    What we need in this country are more food producers, from better-than-organic family farms to suburban gardeners to urban chicken wranglers.

    But unfortunately, it seems the only thing that will get us there is a massive and catastrophic failure of the existing system. Too bad that we’ll have to sink so low before we decide to fix this problem.

  4. While it’s certainly worthwhile to ask the USDA to slow the line, there’s another way to directly impact the line speed: your consumption choices. The more meat and other animal products YOU BUY, the faster the line speed at the “processing” plants (slaughterhouses). If you care about farm workers, put your money where your mouth is and boycott factory farmed animal products.

  5. Elaine — you may not have noticed, but this article isn’t about the farm. It’s about the abattoir. I alluded to the “Jungle” in my last post. It’s about immigrant life in early 20th Century Chicago, and the horrendous conditions inside abattoirs of the period. That was before factory farming, for the most part. The cattle were free range, organic, grass-fed….. Didn’t make the slaughterhouse conditions any better.

    The farming methods are important. But if you’re trying to improve worker conditions by boycotting something, make sure you aim appropriately. Increasing demand for organic and free range turkey will actually increase the number of such turkeys processed in this manner. Used to be, “organic” was a good indicator, because so few people bought organic that it wasn’t worth devoting a production line to it. That’s changing now, and free range can even share the same production line as the “factory-farmed” birds.

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