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Change in Poultry Inspections May Hurt Workers

A proposed change in poultry-processing inspections could speed up processing lines and raise the risk of repetitive stress injuries to workers. The proposal by the U.S. Department of Agriculture would replace some federal inspectors with poultry company employees.

Georgia is a leading poultry producer with more than 51,000 people in Georgia are employed in the industry with many poultry processing plants concentrated in north Georgia, according to the University of Georgia.

The proposal would have workers act as inspectors who would look at carcasses individually for contamination or defects. The USDA says the change would allow its own inspectors to focus on areas in poultry production that pose the greatest risk to food safety.

The proposed system has existed in a pilot program since 1999 and is currently used in at least 20 chicken processing plants and at least five turkey processing plants. Supporters of expanding these procedures to plants nationwide say poultry processed at the plants in the pilot program have not been linked to any major illnesses.

However, worker safety advocates are very concerned that workers will be placed under significant pressure when they are required to inspect hundreds of birds individually on a processing line.

One concern is that workers could be exposed to repetitive stress injuries, specifically workplace injuries that affect the hand, wrist and fingers. Repetitive stress injuries occur when a set of muscles is used repeatedly to perform an activity without a break. Repetitive stress injuries are already a serious risk for workers in meat processing plants in the poultry-processing industry and the proposed change could exacerbate these risks.

The new system would allow poultry to be processed at a 6% higher rate than the current rate without adding workers to the system. Companies can save millions of dollars from in-house inspections without adding workers to the lines.

Food Safety and Worker Health

The National Chicken Council, which is the trade association of the chicken-processing industry, claims that the new rule would not only enhance food safety but also improve worker safety and that workers in the pilot program plants actually perform better than workers at plants under the traditional inspection system.

There is no doubt that much of the spotlight in this situation has been on food safety. There have been a number of food-poisoning outbreaks nationwide related to meat and poultry products. Therefore, the main concern seems to be the risk of defective, contaminated or diseased poultry entering the market, posing a potentially serious hazard. However, equal attention must be paid to the fact that workers at these plants will be placed at additional stress and a higher risk of injuries.

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