Workers in test plants reported being unable to stop dirty and potentially diseased carcasses from moving through their plants, according to the Government Accountability Project, a group that assists whistle-blowers.
"Every bird in a traditional plant receives an inspection. You look at the viscera, at the inside of the chicken," said Stan Painter, a federal inspector who has worked in poultry processing plants for 27 years.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, June 09, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 3 inches; 106 words Type of Material: Correction
Poultry inspections: An article in the June 6 Business section about new rules for inspecting poultry said that the U.S. Department of Agriculture found little difference in the instances of "salmonella and other pathogens" in processing plants operating under existing rules and test plants with fewer inspectors and faster production lines. In fact, salmonella rates were lower in test plants from 2006 to 2008 and were slightly higher, but by a statistically insignificant amount, in 2009 and 2010. The USDA found greater differences in the incidence of other pathogens such as septicemia and toxemia, for which rates were as much as 14% lower in test plants.
In a test plant, "you're not able to look at the inside of the chicken. They're just jammed together, their wings are literally touching."
Painter said he has seen defective chicken bodies move down the line for packaging "every day" at the slaughterhouse where he works, one of the test plants.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that there are 1.2 million incidents of salmonella illness each year. Unlike other food-borne illnesses, the incidence of salmonella has risen 10% in recent years.
When Consumer Reports tested 382 broiler chickens bought from grocery stores in 2009, 14% were found to contain salmonella.
Thorough cooking typically kills salmonella, but the bacteria can spread from hands and kitchen implements that have not been thoroughly washed.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents nearly a third of the nation's 200,000 poultry workers, said the new rules would mean "more danger on the job."
The poultry industry's worker injury rate already is about a third higher than the average for all manufacturing industries. They often are prone to back and repetitive stress injuries, and one study said 59% of line workers already have carpal tunnel syndrome -- at line speeds of 70 to 91 birds a minute.
The USDA did not examine the effect of increased line speeds on workers, but said it is preparing one now.
The National Council of La Raza argued that the proposed rule is based on "the unsubstantiated assumption that faster line speed will have no adverse impact on worker health and safety."
The American Public Health Assn., in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, called the proposal "seriously flawed" and said the USDA should be taking steps to slow production lines.
"The conclusions of the best occupational health researchers who have studied this population is that the line speed should be slowed -- not increased to an unfathomable 175 birds per minute -- to protect workers from harm," the association wrote.
The USDA's Hagen said the department is looking into the effect of line speeds on worker health.
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Top in poultry
Top chicken meat producing states, 2011
1. Georgia, $3.4 billion
2. Arkansas, $2.7 billion
3. Alabama, $2.7 billion
4. N. Carolina, $2.6 billion
5. Mississippi, $2.2 billion
6. Texas, $1.7 billion
7. Kentucky, $795 million
8. Maryland, $725 million
9. Delaware, $711 million
10. Okla., $710 million