Several summers ago, in order to work at a poultry plant in rural Alabama, I had to pass three tests. The first was the standard pee-into-a-cup routine (standard, at least, when applying for punishing work paying poverty wages). Next, the nurse instructed me to exhale deeply into a Breathalyzer to prove I had arrived at the job interview sober (that was a new one). But the toughest test, at least for drug-free people in the habit of getting through the morning without alcohol, was yet to come. It was time to learn to live with pain.
“It’s fast, and it’s hard, and your hands are gonna swell and ache,” a friendly woman told us during orientation. “You’ll be using muscles and nerves and tendons that you normally don’t use.” That wasn’t entirely accurate—we use our hands every day, after all—but it was certainly true that we were about to put our hands through a whole new type of hurt. I was soon tearing through more than 7,000 chicken breasts each night (I worked the graveyard shift), while nearby workers sliced up countless birds with knives and scissors. The massive plant was capable of killing and processing nearly 1.5 million birds a week, and the pace was as relentless as such numbers suggest. We often didn’t even have time to wipe bits of chicken flesh from our faces, and I took to popping ibuprofen during breaks to quell the swelling in my hands. (Pilgrim’s Pride, the poultry giant that owned the plant, was nice enough to line one wall of the break room with dispensers filled with painkillers; it wasn’t nice enough, however, to provide them free of charge.)
Not surprisingly, more than half my orientation class was gone within the first week.
It was also not so surprising, after having worked at the plant for a month, to meet a number of people who had come down with musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) like carpal tunnel syndrome or tendinitis from the repetitive nature of the work. One was unable to hold a glass of water; another had three surgeries on her wrists; a third had discovered, after a visit to the doctor, that her thumb joint had almost disappeared after twelve years of line work. She told me her doctor had taken a vein from her leg and wrapped it around her thumb in an attempt to replace the missing cartilage. “Everyone on the line had hand problems,” she said.
But here’s something that I did find surprising: when the government set the maximum line speed at poultry plants—currently it’s ninety-one birds a minute—it failed to take worker safety into consideration. Instead, the limit was determined by the US Department of Agriculture, based on food safety concerns. And here’s something even worse: in January the USDA proposed a new method for poultry inspection that would allow plants to run lines at 175 birds a minute. That’s nearly double the current limit. According to the USDA, over three years the new approach will save $90 million in taxpayer money by cutting the number of online inspectors, while also reducing dangers to the public.
It sounds counterintuitive that an inspection system that permits faster line speeds and decreases the number of government inspectors would create safer chicken, but the USDA argues that it can do more with less if it alters the current arrangement, which has been in place since the 1950s. Today USDA inspectors spend much of their time sorting carcasses with obvious physical defects—generally considered by the agency to be issues of food “quality” rather than safety—and instructing poultry plant staff either to pull these carcasses or remove blemishes to make them passable. Under the new plan, poultry workers would be responsible for conducting such tasks before the bird’s arrival at the USDA checkpoint, increasing the chances that the birds will pass. According to the USDA, the fact that inspectors will pass more birds allows for an increase in line speed, as time spent ordering alterations will be minimized. And with the need for fewer online inspectors, the USDA argues, it would be free to focus more staff attention on the largest cause of food-borne illnesses—pathogens like salmonella and campylobacter—which can’t be detected by a visual examination, by ensuring plants are following the proper sanitation and antimicrobial programs. Big Meat—which stands to save $257 million a year operating at higher speeds—was immediately on board. “We commend USDA for embracing science,” cheered the American Meat Institute. “Poultry industry supports modernization and flexibility to improve food safety,” echoed the National Chicken Council.