The National Chicken Council and the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association this week refuted claims of unsafe working conditions in poultry plants made in a recent white paper from the Southern Poverty Law Center and Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice.
The law centers, which advocate for various causes and "at-risk" social groups, released the report earlier this month. They say that the high speeds of poultry processing lines are causing unsafe conditions, injuries and illnesses in workers.
"Nearly three out of four Alabama poultry workers interviewed for the report described suffering a significant work-related injury or illness, such as debilitating pain in their hands, gnarled fingers, cuts, chemical burns or respiratory problems," the SPLC said.
The report, SPLC says, is based on 300 interviews of current and former Alabama poultry workers. It highlights figures from the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration and USDA regulations that dictate processing speeds and inspection.
In the report, the group says that injuries in the poultry industry are more frequent than for the private workforce as a whole, citing data that found injury rates of 5.9% in the poultry industry.
But, poultry groups say more accurate figures for the group's comparisons should be drawn from poultry workers vs. all manufacturing workers, not all workers, as cited in the paper. Manufacturing illness/injury rate is at 4.4%, while injury rates for all workers is at 3.5%.
NCC and US Poultry also point out the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported injury/illness rate for automobile manufacturing workers was 7.5%; for office furniture manufacturing, 5.2%; for passenger airline workers, 7.9%; and for state and local government workers, 5.7%.
The poultry industry's injury and illness rates, they conclude, are in line with many other manufacturing industries.
But, a major sticking point for the SPLC wasn't only an injury count, it is the forthcoming decision by the USDA to implement new poultry inspection regulations, which could speed processing lines at plants. Under the new rules, the USDA could allow poultry processors to boost processing speed from 140 to 175 birds per minute.
Additionally, SLPC says the new regulation would increase injuries.
"The hard-working people who produce our food should be protected from dangerous conditions that lead to avoidable injuries, and they should not be expected to double as food safety inspectors," said SPLC staff attorney Tom Fritzsche, author of the report. "The current system may be profitable for the poultry companies, but it relies on systematic exploitation of workers. Now, regulators are about to make conditions even more hazardous."
NCC and US Poultry say the assertion that speeding processing will cause more injuries is without evidence. They point out that higher processing speeds have been studied through a pilot program since 1999 in 20 chicken plants.
Poultry groups say the injury rates and days away rates in pilot establishments were at or below the industry average for 2009 and 2010.
"While the past 25 years has seen a dramatic decrease in the numbers and rates injury and illnesses occurring in the industry, the poultry industry will continue to seek new and innovative ways to protect our workforce," the NCC-US Poultry paper noted.