Rena Steinzor on CPRBlog {Bio}
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The Real Price of Chicken Nuggets: Obama Administration Turns Its Back on Poultry Processing Workers; Crippled (Literally) by a Thousand Cuts

Only in Washington, D.C. is nothing portrayed as something.  Out in the nation, not so much.  And so it was late last week that the Obama Administration took a victory lap for not making life even more miserable for some of the most abused workers in America. Yup, despite the best efforts of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which is supposed to watch out for workers’ well-being, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the life-long booster for corporate agriculture, gave a swift kick in the pants to all those low-wage people of color who make the chicken nuggets and chick filets that now dominate what’s for dinner. 

Up until last Thursday, USDA was claiming loudly to anyone who would listen that it doesn’t “do” worker protection.  Then the agency did a full 180 in the middle of the road, and now claims it has addressed workers’ concerns with the help of its new best friends at OSHA. Those workers are the folks who toil at workplaces so miserable that many states make it a crime to film inside them. 

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Tweaks to Bad Chicken Processing Rule Leave Workers and Consumers in the Lurch; Rule Hurtles Out of the White House Door at Record Speed

We’ve received the bad news from impeccable sources that the much-criticized USDA poultry processing rule has passed White House review at record speed—20 days, count ‘em!—and will be released late this afternoon.  As usual, the process of OIRA review was shrouded in secrecy, with affected stakeholders filing in and out of the White House to talk about a rule they had never seen to taciturn OIRA officials who had long since cut a deal with USDA.  Of course, the late afternoon release is designed to forestall criticism in the same news cycle that will report the White House spin on the rule.  But we know enough about it to make some basic observations.

Our sources informed us that the rule will allow companies to have processing lines that run at the speed of 140 birds per minute—that’s 2.3 chickens every single second, although it’s also the current USDA maximum, allowing USDA to claim that the new rule doesn’t make matters any worse. 

OSHA, which was deeply involved in negotiations with USDA, clearly views this outcome as a great victory because it reduces by 35 birds/minute the original and outlandish USDA proposal that line speeds increase to 175 birds/minute.  But saving workers from the furthest reach of bad conditions without beginning to address their documented daily misery is incremental change, not victory. The plain truth is that study after study, including a recent NIOSH report, have documented severe ergonomic injuries at line speeds significantly below 140 birds/minute.  OSHA didn’t review those studies dispassionately in a rulemaking that would honor its mission of protecting workers from harm.  Instead, it played a numbers game with USDA under the watchful eye of White House staffers, leaving an already bad working situation to fester. 

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Silly “Secret Science” Scheme Slithers to the Senate

It must be something of a game for them.  That’s really the only explanation I can come up with for why the antiregulatory members of Congress seem so intent on competing with each other to see who can introduce the most outlandish, over-the-top anti-EPA bill.  If it is a game, then its best competitors would have to include Senators John Barasso (R-WY) and David Vitter (R-LA) who earlier this month introduced S. 2613, the Secret Science Reform Act of 2014.

If this bill sounds familiar, that’s because it is identical to one that was introduced in the House in February by Rep. David Schweikert (R-AZ).  At the time, a group of CPR Member Scholars sent a letter to the Subcommittee on the Environment of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, of which Representative Schweikert is chair, to explain their concerns in anticipation of the subcommittee’s legislative hearing on the bill.  The bill, which the House Science Committee approved along party lines and now awaits full floor consideration, purports to prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from taking any action that is informed by scientific or technical information—including issuing new regulations—unless the EPA affirmatively makes all of that scientific or technical information fully available to the public.  Since the EPA’s mission is necessarily science-driven, this bill would pretty much cover everything the agency does.

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Department of Agriculture Sends Misguided Fiasco of a Poultry Processing Rule to the White House

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) sent its benighted poultry processing rule to the White House for final review.  The millions of consumers who eat undercooked chicken at their peril and the beleaguered workers in these dank, overcrowded, and dangerous plants can only hope the President’s people come to their senses over there and kill this misguided fiasco. 

Ordinarily, we would have hoped that Department of Labor secretary Tom Perez would have put his foot down before USDA proceeded with the final rule, but after months of pleas from the National Council of La Raza, African American labor advocates, trade unions, and consumer groups across the spectrum, he has remained aloof.  Apparently, the economic needs of multi-billion dollar poultry processing companies that have brought us salmonella outbreak after salmonella outbreak will once again trump the needs of the consumers and workers, especially Hispanic and African American workers who, if they are lucky, manage to avoid cutting themselves too often on crowded assembly lines only to succumb to crippling ergonomic injuries a few years down the road.

USDA claims that the rule will “modernize” the food safety system with respect to poultry grown and slaughtered in the U.S.  This claim has got to be one of the greatest misrepresentations launched by the government so far this year.  Instead, the rule makes a pair of very bad changes that benefit an industry undeserving of the public’s trust:  (1) it pulls hundreds of federal inspectors off the line at poultry plants so they won’t be able to check birds for feces, blood, and feathers and (2) it allows chicken producers like Foster Farms, Perdue, and Pilgrim’s Pride to speed the line up from 50-70 birds/minute to 175—or close to three birds every second.

In place, the rule imposes two laughable substitutes.  The first is self-regulation by the chicken companies.  USDA doesn’t tell the companies what to test, how often to test, or what to do with test results, but rather leaves it up to each plant’s managers to decide whether consumers and workers will be at too much “risk.”  Second, workers paid subsistence wages would assume the inspector’s responsibilities, but the rule doesn’t require any training on how they might approach that critical job. At three birds a second, and with the added job of hanging and processing the carcasses as they whip by, the idea that workers can do anything other than get hurt worse is quite remarkable.

 

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The Real "Tsunami" in Federal Regulatory Policy

The federal regulatory system is in crisis. For the past several decades, a damaging set of mandates has continued to pile up on the books—mandates that threaten to stifle critical progress and undermine the nation’s ability to compete in the world economy. Even today, out-of-touch policymakers are attempting to add still more of these mandates, without regard to their direct, indirect, and cumulative costs to society. One might say that we are facing a tsunami, a flood, or even an avalanche of these mandates.

You’ve heard that sort of rhetoric before, I’m certain, deployed by opponents of various safeguards protecting consumers, workers, the environment, and more. But my diagnosis of the problem refers not to regulatory safeguards that agencies are, after all, obligated to issue as part of their statutory missions, but to the growing number of duplicative and utterly wasteful “lookback” or “retrospective review” requirements that opponents of regulation have sought to erect in their ceaseless bid to block effective implementation and enforcement of landmark protective statutes.

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The Age of Greed: Keeping the Public in the Dark About Dangerous Products

It’s basic common decency:  If you know people are about to stumble into a dangerous situation without realizing the risk, you should try to warn them before harm occurs.  For example, you might warn someone that a frying pan is hot before they pick it up or that a handrail is broken before they try to descend a staircase.

For too many companies, though, concerns about profit margins and quarterly earnings reports leave little room for common decency.  These days, when a company becomes aware that the activities it undertakes or the products or services it offers put its workers or consumers in harm’s away, it often decides that its economic best interests are best served by keeping the public in the dark.  By turning a blind eye, companies hope to avoid footing the costs necessary for eliminating the harms they are creating.  This strategy also aims to limit their exposure to civil and even criminal liability, administrative fines, and other penalties.

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What’s Good Enough for General Motors…

It’s hard to find someone who is not appalled at the news that General Motors knew the ignition switches on some 2.6 million of its automobiles were defective and yet did nothing to fix the problem, instead recommending that its customers stop using keychains.  It also lied repeatedly to its regulator, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the media, and its customers. The company’s deliberate lies saved about 90 cents per car, but the defect, apparent for many years, cost lives. So far, GM admits to 13 deaths caused by the sudden failure of the ignition switches, shutting down the cars’ electrical systems, and with it, power brakes, power steering, and airbags.  But judging from the number of people who have filed lawsuits, the death toll could climb much higher, not to mention the non-fatal accidents caused by the problem, conveniently ignored by GM.

The outrage here is quite appropriate. After all, in order to save a little more than $2.3 million (90 cents times 2.6 million cars, that is), a company that reported a profit of $3.8 billion last year risked the lives of millions of customers — and then lost its stingy bet.

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The Victims of EPA’s Retreat from Enforcement

Since the year began, the Environmental Protection Agency has resolved enforcement actions against 12 different companies in the Chesapeake region for failure to comply with environmental laws.  In one case, EPA found that the U.S. Army had failed to inspect more than a dozen underground tanks at one of its Virginia military bases containing hundreds of thousands of gallons of jet fuel, diesel fuel, and gasoline.  A D.C. hospital was not properly checking for carbon monoxide leaks.  A solvent processing facility in Cockeysville, Maryland, was storing industrial waste in a room with a leaky floor.

The Army paid $41,000; the hospital forked over $15,000; the solvent processing facility was out $80,650.  Collectively, the 12 settlements amounted to nearly $325,000 in penalties.  Compared with the $5.15 billion the Texas oil company Anadarko Petroleum Corp. agreed to pay this month for a massive cleanup involving nuclear fuel, rocket fuel waste and other toxins, these penalties look like mere peanuts.  Yet to the neighbors of the Army base who count on clean groundwater, the patients who went to the D.C. hospital to get better, not poisoned, and the Cockeysville residents who live near the industrial plant, these violations could have serious, even fatal, consequences if left unchecked.

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Timid Bay Agreement Falls Short

Maryland faces an important deadline in its long-running effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. By 2017, the state is required to implement specific measures to reduce the massive quantities of nutrient pollution that now flow into the Bay from agriculture, sewage treatment plants, power plants, factories, golf courses, and lawns. Gov. Martin O’Malley and the other Bay State governors know we’re going to have to make some demands on polluters to get the job done. But if the new Bay Watershed Agreement is any indication, the politicians lack the stomach for it.

For years, the Bay states have collaborated their way to nowhere, inking joint agreements that resulted in very little actual progress. Then the Obama EPA stepped up to the plate, issuing a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), or pollution diet for the Bay. Under its terms, by 2017, the six Bay states (Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia and New York) and the District of Columbia must have in place 60 percent of all the measures needed to reduce nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment deposition in the Bay and its tidal rivers. By 2025, 100 percent of those measures are due.

 

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EPA Declares BP a 'Responsible Contractor' Makes It Eligible Again for Federal Contracts in the Gulf

A scant five days before the Department of Interior opens a new round of bids for oil leases in the Gulf of Mexico, the EPA has blinked, pronouncing BP, the incorrigible corporate scofflaw of the new millennium, once again fit to do business with the government.

To get right to the point, the federal government’s decision that BP has somehow paid its debt and should once again be eligible for federal contracts is a disgrace. Not only does it let BP off the hook, it sends an unmistakable signal to the rest of the energy industry: That no matter how much harm you do, no matter how horrid your safety record, the feds will cut you some slack.

Back in 2012, the agency’s intrepid staff had finally gotten permission to pull the trigger on the company, de-barring it from holding any new U.S. contracts on the grounds that it was not running its business in a “responsible” way. Undoubtedly under pressure by the Cameron government and the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency, BP’s most loyal customer, the EPA settled its debarment suit for a sweet little consent decree that will try to improve the company’s sense of ethics by having “independent” auditors come visit once a year. 

To review the grim record: BP, now the third-largest energy company in the world, is the first among the roster of companies that have caused the most memorable industrial fiascos in the post-modern age. 

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