Georgia’s $28 billion poultry industry soon could get a boost to its bottom line if a proposed U.S. Department of Agriculture rule change gets the go-head from the Obama administration, with Gainesville plants set to reap huge benefits.
“Gainesville is by far the largest area (in the state) in terms of poultry processing and production,” said Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation.
But concerns about how worker and food safety would be negatively impacted have some questioning the wisdom of the new rule that would leave carcass defect inspections on poultry slaughter and processing lines up to company workers rather than federal officials.
“Safe food starts with safe workplaces,” said Catherine Singley, manager of the economic policy project for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization.
The rule change — already underway in 25 poultry plants as part of pilot program begun in 1999, including Pilgrim’s Pride in Gainesville — is likely to be included in President Barack Obama’s budget this year, according to Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist for Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit advocating for food safety. The rule has been pending since January 2012.
“It’s not being proposed to improve food safety,” he said. “It came as an initiative under the president’s deregulatory executive order.”
The potential cost savings of removing most federal inspectors from slaughter and processing lines is a key point advanced by advocates of the rule change.
“This new rule will increase the efficiency of America’s poultry processing lines, modernize meat and poultry inspection and improve food safety,” Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said in a statement to The Times. “Focusing federal inspection on preventing human illness and leaving the visible but nonsafety-related sorting to the industry leverages the federal presence, while making food safer and reducing taxpayer cost.”
In a letter sent to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last month, which was signed by Chambliss and fellow Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., proponents touted the estimated $14.6 million reduction in government spending in the first year if the rule is implemented.
“I support allowing company workers to inspect poultry processing lines because it modernizes the inspection process while ensuring the same high safety standards that are currently in place to ensure food safety,” Isakson said in a statement to The Times.
But critics say the savings to the federal government would come at the expense of Americans’ health.
“From a food safety standpoint, we see this as a step backward, where the industry is going to self-regulate,” Corbo said.
According to the National Chicken Council, the leading advocacy group for the poultry industry, the new inspection system would better protect the public from food-borne illnesses by modernizing an old-fashioned system that is long past its prime.
The rule change would allow companies to increase the speed of processing lines to 175 chickens per minute from a current limit of 140, a potential boon for local poultry plants. The industry is responsible for more than 100,000 direct and indirect jobs in the state, according to the Georgia Poultry Federation. Gainesville, in particular, would profit handsomely. And beyond the local slaughtering plants, many allied and associated industries are poised to prosper as well.
“The industry grew up in Gainesville,” Giles said. “In a lot of ways, (poultry) is the backbone of the (local) economy.”
Representatives from local plants did not return requests for comment.
The changes, however, would fall on the backs of immigrants and women, who constitute a large percentage of the industry workforce.
“Our goal here is not to turn people off from eating chicken,” Singley said. “This is a vital industry for the American economy, for Latino workers. Our goal is to improve the quality of those jobs and to make those jobs safer for people in places like Georgia.”
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has no enforceable rules or guidelines governing workplace standards in the poultry industry, a fact that concerns critics of the proposed rule change.
“One of the things that’s really challenging when looking at working conditions in the poultry industry ... is that most of the employer-reported injury data is not accurate,” said Tom Fritzsche, staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center who has authored a report on working conditions in Alabama poultry plants.
The USDA, meanwhile, reports that worker safety has improved over the past two decades, and expects no adverse impacts when and if the rule is implemented.
Fritzsche said the 140 limit already is too high, and he recommends lowering it to alleviate worker safety concerns.
“It’s as big, if not a slightly bigger concern, for workers in Georgia” because of the size of the industry, Fritzsche added.
Georgia is the leading poultry slaughtering and processing state.
Moreover, critics fear that safety standards in poultry plants would regress as workers become more hesitant to report injuries for fear of losing their jobs. Federal inspectors, they say, provide a necessary layer of oversight.
Proponents, on the other hand, say the data just doesn’t back up those assertions.
“We have a track record and a lot of data to rely on,” Giles said. “It has been a successful pilot project and worthy of moving forward with a final rule that would allow the modernized system to be used at all poultry plants.”