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How chicken plants became more dangerous places to work than coal mines

US chicken plants process 140 birds a minute. The Trump administration thinks that’s too slow.

Protesters demonstrate outside Denver’s State Capitol to call on the governor to close down meat processing plants due to new coronavirus cases on May 28.
David Zalubowski/AP

Taking chickens and pigs from the highly concentrated farms where they live to supermarket shelves isn’t an easy process. The animals have to be processed at slaughterhouses where they’re killed and dismembered for their meat.

And because chickens and pigs (and cows and lambs and turkeys … ) are living things whose shapes and sizes vary, cutting and pulling breast meat from chickens, for example, can’t be done with machines or robots. It has to be done by human beings, and to achieve the output that slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants want, it has to be done quickly.

The plants’ practice of placing workers shoulder to shoulder, while doing exhausting work that leads to heavy breathing, has made them epicenters for the coronavirus outbreak this year. The Trump administration has tried to keep the mostly low-income workers in these plants working all the same out of fear of a “meat shortage,” putting the workers at considerable risk.

That’s hardly the only risk, however, that workers in these plants face. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers in animal slaughter and production face higher rates of injury than coal miners or construction workers. Poultry processing in particular is the leading occupational cause of finger amputations in the US.

Workers in these plants have to use sharp knives to cut apart animal carcasses for hours on end, leaving them at risk for both brutal cuts and repetitive stress injuries. Currently, chicken plants can process up to 140 birds every minute, usually in an assembly-line fashion that gives workers a few seconds, at most, to do their portion of the job on each bird. The Trump administration is trying to increase that to 175 birds, which could pose a serious danger to workers.

It could also potentially pose a serious danger to consumer health. In order to speed up the line, certain test plants have introduced a new form of meat inspection that the USDA claims improves safety. But a report from the Office of the Inspector General found fault with the quality of inspection at these test plants, and Jill Mauer, a federal meat inspector who worked at one of them, has been blowing the whistle out of concern that US meat will be less safe if this new inspection technique is adopted nationwide.

In the third season of the Vox Media Podcast Network series Future Perfect, we — my cohost Sigal Samuel, our reporter/producer Byrd Pinkerton, and I, Dylan Matthews — are delving into the way the meat we eat affects all of us. And in episode four, Byrd and I explored the debate over increasing line speed at meat-processing plants, in particular poultry plants:

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This podcast was made possible thanks to support from Animal Charity Evaluators, a nonprofit that researches and promotes the most effective ways to help animals.

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