Tagged as poultry


UFCW Focuses on Worker Safety & Immigration in Meatpacking Industry


For Local 400 representative Misty Wrenn, it was an eye-opening, powerful experience.

Having once worked for five years at the Smithfield pork plant in Smithfield, Va., Misty knew first-hand how tough conditions could be inside the facilities where animals are slaughtered, and meat is cut, processed and packaged. But what she heard from her sisters and brothers at the recent UFCW Meatpacking and Food Processing Chain Conference in Omaha was still shocking.

“What really got me is that now, the poultry companies want to speed up their lines to the point where they’re processing 175 birds a minute,” Misty said. “That’s insane. There is no way you can be doing this. I can’t imagine working like that.

“It just isn’t right, no one can do that much,” she noted. “How many workers will hurt themselves, lose a finger, or get carpal tunnel?”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which regulates meat and poultry processing, is currently considering a petition by the National Chicken Council to eliminate the current line speed limit of 140 birds per minute. This not only threatens worker health—it threatens consumer health, too. As retired USDA food safety inspector Phyllis McKelvey told National Public Radio, “These machines will pull the viscera, which is the guts of the chicken. And a lot of times the guts hang on their prongs and those machines just get covered up in guts, which is slinging manure all over the product.”

Click here to learn more about how increasing poultry line speeds could make jobs more dangerous and chicken unsafe to eat.

Misty was also deeply moved by Conference attendees’ stories about the Trump Administration’s changes in immigration policy. Meat and poultry processing plants will be directly impacted by this because they employ a high proportion of immigrants.

“It really tore me up to hear about how so many immigrants are exploited, harassed and mistreated, and now are at risk of being sent back to countries where they haven’t lived in years, even decades,” she said.

“They have families here; what’s going to happen to their kids if they’re sent back?” Misty asked. “The repeal of DACA is threatening young people who have lived in the U.S. since they were little children and have no memory of the country they were born in. There are deportations. And people from Haiti, Nicaragua and Honduras are about to have their visas revoked next year. This is really sad.”

Again, the UFCW is fighting back, lobbying Congress to undo Trump administration policies, advising immigrant members about how to protect themselves, and mobilizing public opinion against the cruel impact of immigration raids.

“Immigrants are used by greedy employers for their own selfish reasons,” Misty said. “And the more crackdowns there are, the more immigrants will be driven into an underground economy, where they’re paid even less and have no rights at all. And that, in turn, will drive down wages for all workers.

“I’m proud UFCW is leading the fight for processing plant workers, for immigrants, and for all workers,” she added. “We’re helping people and saving jobs, and that’s why Local 400 is here.”

How Increasing Poultry Line Speeds Could Make Chicken Unsafe to Eat

Oxfam estimates that each person eats 89 pounds of chicken a year – which means as a country, we’re eating close to 9 billion birds per year. It’s a major, multi-billion dollar industry that supplies us with chicken nuggets, wings, and the foundation for so many of our favorite, home-cooked meals.

It’s easy to cook, it’s affordable, and a mainstay in the meals American families share with one another.

But jobs inside poultry plants are some of the most dangerous and difficult in America. The National Chicken Council, which is the poultry industry’s main trade association and functions to represent its interests to Congress and other federal agencies, wants to do away with a key protection to keep workers safe on the job: line speeds.

Three Things You Should Know About Poultry Line Speeds

1.) By law, most poultry plants can run their processing lines at 140 birds per minute. That’s already insanely fast.

Federal law currently sets the line speed maximum at 140 birds per minute at most poultry facilities. To give you a sense of what that translates to in real life, that’s just a hair faster than the tempo for Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” except where each beat is a chicken.

On the line itself, one employee can process more than 14,000 chickens each day. Depending on the job, each worker can process around 35-45 birds per minute – which rounds out to about 2,000 chickens per hour or nearly one chicken every two seconds.

Some plants are even allowed to operate at 175 BPM (for background on why some plants are allowed to be faster than others and for more examples of songs that match different line speeds, check out this great article from The New Food Economy). There are few things that we do each and every day that can even compare to that level of repetition.

2.) As line speed increases, safety decreases. And they want to eliminate line speeds entirely.

While there’s currently a speed limit in poultry plants, the National Chicken Council wants to eliminate them entirely.

As line speeds increase, so does the risk of injury—including serious and bloody cuts and amputations.

But faster line speeds also mean less time for federal meat inspectors and quality control workers to do their jobs and ensure the chicken you’re eating is safe to consume.

Want a better idea how fast poultry lines could move if they eliminate line speed limits? Here’s what 200 BMP sounds like, which is how fast Germany already allows their plants to run (with negative side effects, as explained in #3):

3.) Faster line speed also means inspectors have less time to watch out for food safety issues. That should make anyone feel queasy. 

If current line speeds are eliminated, federal inspectors who are tasked with spotting contaminated birds may be forced to examine more than two per second for abscesses, tumors, or other diseases.

The National Chicken Council argues that increased line speeds will help modernize the system, and keep up with international competitors.

But countries which allow faster line speeds have more issues with food safety. Germany allows line speeds up to 200 BPM and their poultry meat is found to have higher levels of Salmonella and Campylobacter contamination.

Retired USDA food safety inspector Phyllis McKelvey spoke out about the dangers of increasing line speed in an interview with NPR earlier this year:

“These machines will pull the viscera, which is the guts of the chicken. And a lot of times the guts hang on their prongs and those machines just get covered up in guts, which is slinging manure all over the product,” she says.

In the live hang section, McKelvey said equipment failures would also occur in the stun bath, where birds are shocked with electricity. That would send fully conscious birds to a machine that would sever their necks.

“If the line is going too fast you have a lot of birds that don’t get stunned,” she says. “So you’ve got some birds going into the scald vats, alive.”

The USDA describes the new inspection system as more science-based in that it requires that all poultry facilities perform their own microbiological testing along with two federal inspectors. This leaves one inspector to view the carcasses.

But with fewer inspectors, McKelvey argues, plants are relying on more chemicals like peracetic acid or food bleach to reduce the chance of food contamination.

“And if they don’t have a proper air system, these chemicals are causing people to sneeze and cough. And even at that rate it gets so bad we’d have to shut the line down,” McKelvey says.

Here’s how you can take action to keep poultry workers safe on the job and chicken safe on your plate:

The USDA is currently accepting public comments on increasing line speed limits in poultry plants. Click here to submit your comment by December 13 and tell them we deserve safe food, and America’s poultry workers deserve safe workplaces. Tell the USDA today and to reject the National Chicken Council’s petition and keep safe line speed limits in poultry plants.

Originally posted on UFCW.org

UFCW Members Make Safety A Priority at Tyson Poultry Plant

On a typical day at the Tyson Foods Processing Plant in Glen Allen, Virginia, Local 400 Shop Steward Aleta Johnsons was operating the Packmat bagging machine. All of a sudden, she heard a co-worker yelling, “Stop, stop, stop! Please help — stop the line!”

She ran to the conveyor belt, where she saw five-pound bags of wingettes piling up and falling on the floor. Then, she immediately pulled a switch and stopped the line.

Just 10 days earlier, this would not have been possible. Only managers had the power to stop the line. But thanks to a recently instituted reform worked out between Local 400 members and Tyson management, any worker has the power to halt the entire production line if he or she witnesses a safety hazard, as Aleta did.

“We’re supposed to have 10 to13 people on our line, but since I’ve been working there, we’ve only had six,” Aleta said. “On that day, there were just four and one was a new person being trained while the line was running. It was too much too fast for too few people. That’s why the chicken was piling up and why I stopped it.

“A manager came back, asked what was going on and I explained what happened,” she recalled. “He said, ‘take your time—I’ll try to get two more people for your line.’ They never came, but he told us to work at our own pace. So about 10 minutes later, we were able to get things back up and running, and we adjusted the speed so we weren’t overwhelmed.”

Aleta makes a point of being safety conscious. “One day several months ago, I was rethreading the Packmat machine,” she said. “It’s not supposed to turn on when the door’s open but the trip wire was blown and that’s what happened. It ripped the sleeve off my smock and could have taken my arm off. It scared the living daylights out of me. We had a standing room only emergency meeting afterward to address the problem.”

A combination of union activism and management concerned about the company’s reputation elevated the importance of safety and the need to empower workers to take action. Tyson launched a national program called “We Care,” with the direct input of UFCW. The first plant to implement the program was Glen Allen, thanks to monthly meetings between workers (including Aleta) and plant managers—meetings required by the collective bargaining agreement between Local 400 and Tyson.

“I’ve seen a difference in management since we’ve had these monthly meetings,” Aleta said.
“The atmosphere is a lot different. They’re taking us seriously when we make recommendations and following through. And not just on safety—the meetings also led to improvements in the pay process and our ability to schedule personal days. There are things we need to work on—like better-staffed lines and an end to 10-hour work days—but it’s coming along. And our union has been so helpful in all of this.”

Thanks to these efforts—and the courage and decisiveness Aleta showed—safety protections for Tyson workers are getting stronger every day.