REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker

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.

Yet while the USDA is proposing to increase line speeds dramatically, a growing body of evidence points to widespread dangers already faced by poultry workers. In 2007 a study by Duke University found that 43 percent of poultry workers surveyed reported symptoms of MSDs. The following year, the Charlotte Observer published a six-day series based on a nearly two-year investigation into poultry work. The Observer found that companies failed to record injuries accurately, and spoke to a South Carolina doctor who estimated that he had seen 1,000 poultry employees. “I don’t know a single worker who doesn’t have some sort of pain in their hand,” the doctor told the paper. And in February a study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that Latino poultry workers were two and a half times more likely to suffer from carpal tunnel than their peers in other blue-collar occupations.

Sara Quandt, a professor of epidemiology and prevention at the Wake Forest School of Medicine, directed the study on carpal tunnel. “One of the concerns with increasing the line speed is that it will increase injuries to workers who already fail to report them or whose reports aren’t taken seriously by employers,” she tells me, pointing out that many poultry workers are undocumented immigrants. “That’s what I worry about with this. Workers are making the same motions over and over again. Those are the ones that really get slammed by the line speed.”

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When it announced the rule, the USDA promised to work with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to evaluate what effects the line speedup would have on workers and “consider the available data” when implementing the changes. Normally it would be difficult to study the potential effects with any accuracy—how can we say what the effects of a future rule will be?—but in this case there is a whole group of workers to study. That’s because the proposed rule is actually an expansion of a current program, the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points-based Inspection Models Project (HIMP), which involves a group of twenty plants that have been running at faster line speeds since the late 1990s, and which have increased their attention to “off-line” monitoring of programs to prevent food-borne pathogens. A recent risk assessment of HIMP plants conducted by the USDA found that they actually decreased the rate of pathogens like salmonella and campylobacter. But while the food might be safer, no effort has been made to figure out how workers at these plants have been coping with the increased pace.

The United Food and Commercial Workers—which represents poultry workers—opposed the rule change precisely because the USDA introduced it before determining its potential effects on workers. “No comprehensive effort has been made to determine the effect faster line speeds and changes in safety protocol will have on the health and safety of the workers in these plants,” states Tim Schlittner, a union spokesman. “[The] USDA should pull this rule entirely until an exhaustive study on injuries and illnesses is completed.”

A few people following the issue said they expected the rule would go into effect as soon as this fall. But when I asked NIOSH how long its evaluation might take, it was unable to provide specifics. “We don’t have a start date,” said NIOSH spokeswoman Christina Spring. “We’re still waiting for FSIS to identify sites.” FSIS is the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the USDA. Identifying sites wouldn’t seem to be overly difficult: the agency certainly knows which plants have been allowed to run at faster speeds. When I asked why the process was taking so long—and why such an evaluation wasn’t done before the rule was proposed—Spring suggested I put those questions to the USDA. The USDA, however, declined to comment, citing concerns about the “slanted phrasing” of my questions.

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Would the new inspection program produce safer chicken? The USDA thinks so, and estimates that within two years the rule will prevent 20,000 people from contracting salmonella. The Center for Science in the Public Interest put out a lukewarm statement, advising the government to “proceed cautiously”; the Consumer Federation of America has argued that an independent review of HIMP is needed before taking the program national. The most vociferous critic of the rule has been Food & Water Watch, an offshoot of Public Citizen, citing the findings of its recent Freedom of Information Act request, which discovered that company inspectors in HIMP plants regularly miss problems like “fecal contamination” on the carcasses.

Shortly after the rule was introduced, the USDA received 4,000 e-mails from people concerned about food safety. And recently ABC News ran a critical story about the proposed change, which included a damning interview with a USDA inspector in one of the HIMP plants, who has been trying to keep up with the new line speed. “You just kind of watch them fly by,” the man, whose identity was hidden, told ABC. “We’re not inspecting anymore; we’re kind of monitoring. We joke. We pat them on the butt and let them keep on going.” In response to ABC, the USDA announced that it would extend the comment period for the rule by an additional thirty days (the previous period was to end April 26).

The way food safety has dominated this debate highlights how, in a country obsessed with food, we still fail to appreciate the people whose work brings the food to our table. While the government has responded to public demands for better inspection processes, tens of thousands of poultry workers may soon find their already dangerous job becoming much more so, with almost no public debate. We consider a food product safe if it’s something we can feed our children. But what if producing the food does so much damage to the hands of workers that they are unable to hold their own?