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Liberals shun science, defy Obama in poultry production

Sep 27, 2017
Op-Ed

WASHINGTON—This op ed by Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) first appeared in The Hill on September 27, 2017.

Not much has changed since 1906, when Upton Sinclair dropped his magnum opus on a world in the throes of industrialization.

At least, that’s the picture that liberals like Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) are propagating: Big business is forcing poultry workers to brave conditions straight out of “The Jungle,” and “any attempt to increase lines speeds” at poultry plants would erode food and worker safety. 

If these claims were rooted in reality, allowing producers to increase the speeds of certain processing lines might be inappropriate, especially since my northeast Georgia home is the poultry capital of the world. My neighbors have made their careers in this industry. We see each other at church and at the grocery store, and I want only their safety and success.

If we’re being honest, though, we admit that a lot has changed since 1906, and scientific advances have transformed the industrial landscape and equipped us to evaluate accusations leveled by my friends across the aisle.

Unfortunately, opponents of increasing line speeds have scuttled a broad range of scientific disciplines in order to advance their anti-poultry position. They walk a road so extreme and so hostile to empirical evidence that it requires them to break with President Obama himself, whose administration introduced a rule that would have allowed processors to increase their line speeds safely (and, in so doing, to benefit American workers and consumers).

The first casualty of their argument is geography. These critics say that faster line speeds would force workers on those lines to dismember chickens at dangerous rates. The geography of the production process, however, makes their claim disingenuous. 

Poultry plants exist in two distinct sections—one for first processing and one for second processing. Every petition to raise line speeds that I’m familiar with applies strictly to the first-processing zone, where birds enter the plant and undergo cleaning to make the food safer before ending this journey in chillers. The primary duty of workers on these lines is inspection. They wield cotton swabs, not paring knives. 

Workers who debone the birds operate only in second-processing areas, physically separate from the largely-automated first-processing lines. The chillers represent a full stop in the process and physical division between these sections of a plant, so raising line speeds in the first area doesn’t require work speeds in the second area to increase. The geography lesson here is simple: The layout of these plants means that increases in line speeds in the first-processing zones would, by design, not jeopardize worker safety.

Line-speed skeptics also ignore biology. Since 2007, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has overseen a pilot program for plants operating at speeds of up to 175 birds per minute (bpm). These plants had implemented new safety models that shifted focus from low-value activities—like checking birds for bruises or remaining feathers—to high-value food safety tasks like microbial testing.

A landmark study demonstrated that plants with higher line speeds met or exceeded FSIS food safety standards. Among other successes, FSIS (that is, the government inspectors) saw the percentages of unacceptable samples for E. coli fall from 3.9 percent to 0.7 percent while the plants were able to operate at increased speeds. The rates of Salmonella and Campylobacter bacteria further show that these have food safety outcomes as good as or better than traditionally-run plants, whose line speeds are capped at an arbitrary 140 bpm.

Why would anyone shun innovation that improves both efficiencies and product quality while guarding employee welfare?

I can’t answer that, but we do know this: Such objectors dismiss ergonomic data—even when it comes from federal regulators. They fly the banner of worker safety and efficiency in theory but seem to disregard insight from the Department of Labor, which reports that the poultry industry’s 2015 illness and injury rate was 4.3 cases per 100 full-time workers compared to a rate of 4.7 cases for the food manufacturing sector at large. According to these records, the men and women engaged in poultry processing have found a safer career than those working in the average tortilla manufacturer or bottled water operation. 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics also reports that injury and illness rates among poultry employees have fallen 81 percent since 1994. So, as poultry plants have become more efficient, they have also become safer for the individuals operating them. Innovation is not a zero-sum game.

Yet, in the face of scientific data, industry detractors demonize even economics and its positive externalities. They bemoan the news that poultry “profits are soaring” and decry a company that reported its earnings for “bragging.”

Yet successful companies often find themselves in the best position to supply the market with more affordable goods, and that dynamic serves American consumers—especially the middle class, who spend a greater portion of their income on staples like food than higher-earners do.

The economic cost of locking our producers into slower line speeds became clear in 2010, when Brazil outpaced the U.S. as the world’s leading poultry broiler meat exporter. Like operations in Canada, Europe and Asia, Brazilian plants can run at line speeds of over 200 bpm. Handcuffing American consumers and producers to arbitrarily low line-speeds hurts our economy and may even undermine food and worker safety, both of which have improved as line speeds have increased and oversight techniques have advanced.

Liberals appropriate the stories of individual poultry employees without disclosing that they don’t actually work on the lines in question here. They jettison a host of scientific data because it is inconvenient to their narrative of doom, gloom and righteous indignation.

We serve our neighbors best when we allow evidence to mobilize our empathy. Scientific analysis demonstrates that innovation has simultaneously improved worker safety, product quality and operational efficiencies across the poultry industry, which means that they’re protecting and stewarding America’s most valuable resource—our workers.

Rep. Doug Collins has represented Georgia's 9th District since 2013. He is the Vice Chair of the House Republican Conference and a member of the Judiciary and Rules Committees.