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Food Safety and Worker Safety Can Improve in Poultry Facilities

While rates of Salmonella illnesses remain stubbornly high in this country, the United States is continuing to rely on a 60-year-old poultry inspection system developed under the Eisenhower Administration.  Our knowledge of foodborne illness and poultry processing has improved significantly since then, and our food safety measures should too. The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has examined new approaches to poultry safety through an extensive multi-year pilot project.  In January 2012, FSIS put forward a modernization proposal based on this project because the data showed modernizing our procedures to combat invisible pathogens, rather than relying extensively on visual inspection, could prevent 5,000 foodborne illnesses per year. As a public health agency, it is crucial that we make use of 21st century science to reduce pathogens and save lives.

Some of the changes being proposed in the modernization plan concern some groups who misunderstand what FSIS is putting forward. In particular, some have claimed that the allowed speed increase for evisceration lines would lead to higher injury rates among poultry plant workers.  But a newly released report provides evidence that this isn’t the case.

I began my career at a slaughter establishment in Texas, and I know that worker safety is a very real concern in the meat and poultry industry. Because FSIS agrees that food safety improvements should be made with the safety of workers in mind, we requested a study from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to assess the impact that these changes could have. In a report released last week that examined a South Carolina poultry facility, NIOSH confirmed that much can be done in poultry facilities to reduce injury rates, but they also found that the increase in evisceration line speeds was not a significant factor in worker safety.

For its assessment, NIOSH evaluated working conditions and symptoms of musculoskeletal problems among workers at a South Carolina poultry facility. NIOSH visited the facility in August 2012, when the company was running two evisceration lines at 90 birds per minute, and followed up in June 2013, when the company was using a single evisceration line at 175 birds per minute. NIOSH found that working conditions, injury rates, and the number of birds processed per employee did not change between the baseline and follow-up evaluations. It also made several recommendations to improve worker safety at this facility, but slowing the evisceration line speed was not among them.

As a direct result of FSIS’ proposal, worker safety in the poultry industry is being addressed in ways it never has before. This evaluation is one example. To date, we have been having the wrong conversation about worker safety, and that’s why I’m calling on the poultry industry to put in place measures that we know would improve working conditions for its employees.

The bottom line is that NIOSH’s report shows that worker safety and food safety are not opposing efforts.  USDA will continue to do everything we can within our authority to encourage safer working conditions, and we should proceed with the important food safety improvements that would be made under FSIS’s proposed rule.

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