There’s a human cost to factory-processed chicken.
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In the 1960s, the US began a love affair with chicken, and poultry workers paid the cost. Over the past few decades, poultry processing line speeds have increased to meet demand. But that’s happened in tandem with the decline of unions and deregulation of the industry. The result is a high rate of workplace injuries and repetitive motion disorders, with gaps in workplace safety oversight.
For this video, we contacted Tyson Foods Inc. and the National Chicken Council for comment. The NCC, the poultry industry lobby that has repeatedly requested increases in line speeds, wrote that faster line speeds do not affect the pace of work because plants will add additional staff and lines to accommodate speed increases. Through our reporting, we weren’t able to substantiate this claim, and the NCC did not respond when we asked for an example or for any evidence that this is the industry standard.
The NCC also mentioned that other countries run poultry line speeds as fast as, if not faster than, the US. It’s difficult to do an apples-to-apples comparison with other countries. Claire Kelloway, reporter and researcher for OpenMarkets, noted that in Europe, for example, factories are typically smaller than US plants, and have higher rates of unionization and more industry safety regulation. The regulating agencies enforce longer breaks and switching up job roles to avoid repetition. Even so, working conditions in poultry plants are still criticized there.
While the NCC cited a decline in workplace injuries, advocates and experts say that this data is unreliable. It relies on workers reporting injuries to the government agency that regulates workplace safety, OSHA. There are a number of reasons a poultry worker might not report an injury or illness, including language barriers or fears over their citizenship status. Worker and advocate-led surveys show high levels of injury, here are examples:
Tyson disputes, without evidence, the petition that Magaly Licolli presented on behalf of the workers at the Berry Street poultry plant in Springdale, Arkansas. The company said it was misrepresented to those who signed it and that there were duplicate signatures. Tyson also noted that it offered raises to poultry workers in 2021 amid a labor shortage.
We also contacted OSHA for comment. They noted that they issue citations or fines to any workplace found by federal inspectors to have violated their safety standards, but confirmed that it is under the jurisdiction of the USDA to determine line speeds. They also said that they do not track data on the use of the chemicals we mention in the video: chlorine, ammonia, and peracetic acid.
While reporting this episode I read Christopher Leonard’s The Meat Racket, a deep-dive report into the history of Tyson and the poultry industry:
More reading on poultry plants in Europe:
How meat consumption has changed in the past 50 years:
More coverage of the failed OSHA ergonomics rule:
Deborah Berkowitz, former OSHA chief of staff and director of the Worker Health & Safety Program of the National Employment Law Project, was a crucial source for this story. Here is her recent congressional testimony on workplace safety:
Some reporting on whether more automation could help reduce workplace injuries.
More on the history of anti-union politics, specifically in Arkansas:
For more about the impact of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle:
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