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USDA Official Throws OSHA Under the Bus

Public Protections

Partisan efforts in Congress to roll back health and safety rules are common fodder on this blog. But last week, we saw a new twist, with a high-level Obama Administration official giving cover to a right-wing attempt to weaken protections for hundreds of thousands of workers in the poultry industry.

The workers in question are at the center of the highly industrialized process of turning live chickens into shrink-wrapped skinless parts. That puts them at a critical juncture in the vertically integrated industry, where major conglomerates like Perdue, Tyson, and JBS control the entire production chain from fertilized egg to boneless breast. More than 200,000 farms, producing 8.5 billion birds a year, all feed into about 300 federally inspected slaughter facilities. These facilities are a potential choke point in poultry companies’ distribution networks, which profit on speed and efficiency. And right at the front end of those facilities, on the slaughter line, there’s a speed limit set by USDA.

Ever sensitive to the wishes of Big Agriculture, in 2012, USDA proposed  raising that speed limit, as part of a larger effort to change the way poultry slaughter facilities are inspected. There’s a complicated backstory, involving a Clinton-era program of regulatory devolution, complex efforts to expand international trade in poultry, and President Obama pandering to deregulatory fervor from the right. Never mind all that, the bottom line is that USDA’s 2012 proposal would have pulled government inspectors out of poultry slaughter facilities, turned over some of their critical food safety inspection duties to low-level plant employees, and allowed the plants to increase their line speeds to offset the capital costs of adopting this new system.

Public interest advocates, including CPR, raised a variety of concerns about USDA’s proposal, not least of which was the threat to line workers’ safety and health. At current speeds, workers are suffering extraordinary rates of carpal tunnel, tendonitis, back pain, and other chronic and debilitating conditions. Speeding up the lines would only make matters worse. Under USDA’s proposal, workers would be cutting, manipulating, and looking for food safety issues at a rate of up to three birds per second.

Our efforts paid off in a partial victory. USDA did not raise the speed limit on the slaughter lines. But the victory may be fleeting. USDA was careful to carve out space for itself to raise the speed limit at a later date, by carefully stating that the line speeds reflect food safety concerns and that the agency would continue to monitor the relationship between line speeds and food safety.

Now congressional Republicans are set to eliminate the protections that workers and their advocates fought hard to retain, through backdoor maneuvering in the annual appropriations process. They’ve floated the idea of attaching a policy rider to USDA’s FY 2017 appropriation that would allow poultry slaughter facilities to increase their line speeds to the dizzying 175 birds per minute rate.

Their unlikely ally within the Obama Administration is Acting Administrator for USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service, Al Almanza. A former inspector himself, Almanza has always been careful to say that the health and safety of plant workers isn’t his business, it’s OSHA’s. He tells people, like the House Agriculture Committee last week (at 2:09:55), that he knows food safety, and from that perspective, he can’t see the risk of increased line speeds. And when pressed for information about his interactions with OSHA on the issue, last week he threw his sister agency under the bus, claiming that they haven’t been cooperative in identifying health and safety risks related to faster line speeds.

The real problem here is that congressional Republicans are about to do away with a significant worker protection standard, through a process that doesn’t take into account evidence and expertise from the foremost experts on worker safety and health. USDA’s rulemaking process did that (imperfectly, to be sure) and came to the conclusion that line speeds should not increase. Congressional Republicans are about to engage in backdoor rulemaking, and a top official at USDA is complicit in the process.

Last week, I submitted comments to the relevant appropriations committees that illustrate why this type of behavior is bad public policy. Drawing on the excellent work of Tom McGarity, Chip Murphy, and James Goodwin, the comments explain that policy riders like the one being proposed here “lobotomize” and “sabotage” the process of developing sensible safeguards for workers. The normal rulemaking process ensures technical experts are crafting public health safeguards and giving many stakeholders an opportunity to comment on the proposal. Altering worker protections through the appropriations process, on the other hand, ignores even Congress’s own internal division of labor between authorizing committees and budget committees. And it shifts policymaking to an arena where deliberation and careful consideration of consequences plays handmaiden to politicized grandstanding.

Workers’ lives are on the line and this is the wrong way to go about changing the rules that keep them safe. 

Public Protections

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