Back in February, the Charlotte Observer published a shocking six-part series on the human suffering involved in producing cheap chicken. “The Cruelest Cuts” package looked at typical working conditions at a poultry plant, the makeup of the workforce, the sorry state of government oversight, and how the companies stay below regulatory radar. (Bonnie’s post on the series is here.)
Last Friday, the Exposé team at Bill Moyers Journal did a follow-up piece that included interviews with the reporters, a 20-year veteran of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and several poultry workers. The segment is available online, along with a transcript and some useful links.
The workers’ stories are full of suffering and injustice. Take Cornelia Vicente, who after breaking her arm and losing part of one of her fingers in an accident at a poultry plant, was told that if she didn’t report to work immediately after leaving the hospital, she’d lose her job. That might seem odd: why would a company want someone who just suffered a recent serious injury back at work? But it’s because having to record workplace injuries that result in lost time can trigger inspections from regulators.
One of the themes running through both the print and TV coverage is the systematic disassembly of worker protections — whether through changing the rules, reducing inspections, or by allowing self-reporting by companies (and then not checking to see if their reports are accurate). For example, the number of poultry plant inspections by OSHA in North Carolina dropped from 25 in 1997 to 9 in 2006. Considering that there are 34 poultry plants in North Carolina employing more than 20,000 people (according to the Observer), that means that in 2006, the odds of a plant being inspected even just once by OSHA were about 1 in 4. The situation for South Carolina’s 16 plants is even worse: there were 36 inspections in 1999, and only 1 in 2006.
This is not just another example of the high cost — in this case human — of cheap food. It should also serve as a reminder that most of today’s food standards and values — “organic,” “grass-fed,” “pastured,” and so on — still don’t tell us anything about the workers who produced the food.
And that’s something that we need to change somehow, as we work for a better, more ethical food system.