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Another attack on our most vulnerable workers?

Here’s a story that’s been around for a while but gotten far too little attention. The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants to loosen regulatory oversight over the poultry processing industry — an industry that has long posed grave safety problems for both workers and the consuming public. If you doubt this, refresh your memory by perusing the Charlotte Observer’s award-winning 2008 series on the industry: “The Cruelest Cuts.”

Fortunately, experts and advocates are pushing back. As the New York Times reported earlier this month, the Government Accountability Office has issued a report blasting the USDA proposal (which would also allow faster line speeds for workers to contend with):

“The Agriculture Department’s plan to change its poultry inspection procedures relied on incomplete and antiquated data, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office released on Wednesday.

The new rules will allow workers at plants, rather than agency inspectors, to examine birds on processing lines for blemishes or feces.

The department is in the process of publishing final policies for the inspection program — which has been done in pilot programs at 20 poultry plants since 1998 — for use at poultry plants across the country. But the G.A.O. said the lack of data about how the inspections have worked at test sites raised questions about the department’s contention that the procedures would be more effective in protecting food safety.

Currently, Agriculture Department food safety inspectors are stationed along the processing lines in poultry plants, where they examine the birds for visible defects.

Under the new plan, the agency would hand over these duties to poultry plant employees, while the inspectors would spend more time evaluating the plant’s bacteria-testing and other safety programs. The rules would also allow for faster line speeds.”

Worker advocates (including the N.C. Justice Center) have also filed a detailed petition with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration requesting that the agency:

“issue a mandatory occupational safety and health standard regulating work speed on production lines in meatpacking and poultry industries and to ensure that worker safety is protected in any rulemaking related to line and work speeds in these industries.”

Let’s hope the effort bears fruit and that both USDA and the line production lines in poultry plants do the same thing: Slow down.

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