Sen. Hagan should reconsider easing poultry plant rules

January 28, 2014 

Republicans would like to label U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan as a tree-hugging, knee-jerk ultra-liberal as they run against her this year when she’s seeking a second term.

But the former state legislator from Greensboro always has been pro-business, sometimes even when a business-friendly idea perhaps needs another look.

A case in point is Hagan’s proposal to ease regulations in poultry plants. The law has inspectors looking at every carcass for defects. But a change that the U.S. Department of Agriculture appears likely to adopt would put most of the responsibility for inspection in the hands of poultry companies, which would supply their own workers for the task.

The current way, industry representatives say, is too slow and antiquated. By letting company workers do the job, the zip line of carcasses could move faster, increasing production. About 6 percent more birds could be processed with the same number of plant workers.

In North Carolina, poultry is a $13 billion industry. No wonder it has Hagan’s attention.

A 2008 series of stories by The Charlotte Observer showed there were problems in plants where federal regulators relied on the companies to keep track of things such as workplace injuries. Indeed, opponents of the proposed change – which Hagan and other senators of both parties from poultry states are supporting – say that speeding up the process will also increase work injuries.

Anyone who has been to a poultry plant knows the speed at which the carcasses move along the lines and the quickness with which workers do their cutting. It is a grueling job, but in some cases it’s the only job these workers can get, even if it means long-term hand and wrist injuries.

For that reason, workers often don’t want to report injuries for fear they will lose their jobs. That’s why some worker advocates are skeptical about glowing safety reports from companies.

Hagan notes, however, that an inspection program of the kind now up for approval has been in a test phase at some poultry plants for 15 years and that there have been no serious problems. It’s also true that the USDA found that a change in the system would prevent several thousand cases of food-borne illness every year.

It’s a fair point. And, yes, compared with others, this is a worker-friendly administration when it comes to regulation.

But as McClatchy’s Washington bureau reports, there are disagreements among agencies on the issue. The Government Accountability Office, which is nonpartisan and reports to Congress, said the USDA lacked data on the food safety issue.

And a lobbyist for a food safety group noted that the poultry industry gives money to universities that examine the industry and to politicians who ultimately oversee it. Hagan has received $12,000 from the poultry industry in the 2014 election cycle.

Even prior to this proposed change taking effect, it appears the industry was not tightly regulated. Says the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on its website: “There are currently no specific OSHA standards for poultry processing.”

Before new policies help companies move chickens, they should first pass the test of protecting workers.

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