Food

How About Some Justice for Those Risking Their Safety Putting Thanksgiving Dinner on Our Tables?

Turkey workers, primarily Latino, African American, Somali and Burmese, will find this increased production time particularly difficult.

It’s that time of year again when people are busy planning and hosting seasonal celebrations that honor various cultural, religious and social traditions. Over the next six to eight weeks, gatherings will be held in homes, banquet halls, and houses of faith. Although the meaning of these celebrations may vary, rest assured, there will be plenty of good food on hand including ham, vegetables, fruits, nuts, dairy products of all kinds, and lots of turkeys.

While some families prepare to make their traditional holiday trek to enjoy time with family and friends, hundreds of thousands of low wage, immigrant food workers are sequestered in meatpacking, poultry processing and dairy plants, and laboring in fields in order to meet product demands for the celebrations set to commence this week. Turkey workers, primarily Latino, African American, Somali, Burmese and representatives of other immigrant and refugee communities, who come to this country to support their families, will find this increased production particularly difficult. Their experiences mirror the majority of food industry laborers who work to bring food to our tables.

It is estimated that 46 million turkeys were eaten at Thanksgiving and 22 million at Christmas in 2009, and food industry workers will labor countless hours over the next few weeks so that we can enjoy a variety of foods offered during this time of year. When seasonal processing kicks into overdrive, a sobering number of turkeys processed (some 30 turkeys a minute), it creates dangerous working conditions for the workers and compromises consumer food safety standards. However, in states where workers annually process some 60 million and over 40 million turkeys, North Carolina and Minnesota respectively, neither workers or consumer safety are the priority -- profits and dividends are. Poultry companies have even expanded turkey consumption beyond holiday dinner tables by creating new products, including deli-style breast meat and turkey dinosaur wings.

Evidence shows that worker safety is not the priority of the owners of processing plants. It’s difficult to grasp the depth of political wrangling among the government agencies charged with oversight of the industry particularly in the face of an urgent need to improve both the working conditions for turkey workers and the overall food safety standards for consumers. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Office of Food Safety Inspection (FSIS), regulates the maximum line speed of the slaughtering process, which has increased as the lines have become more automated. But it’s regulated only in order to allow federal officials to adequately inspect the process. On the other hand, the health and safety of plant workers (those harmed by those increased line speeds) is under the jurisdiction of the Office of Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) which includes training workers on safe worker practices and holding industry owners accountable for the safety, or lack thereof, of industry workers. That said, it’s time for unprecedented cooperation and accountability from the USDA, OSHA and plant owners in order to address some of the pressing issues in the food industry.

At the recent State of the Plate -- 2010 event, held November 17 in Chicago, conference planners sought to develop and share best practices, information, and strategies for creating a sustainable food supply in the region. Some panel participants (which included food producers, distributors, chefs, restaurant and hospitality professionals, decision makers, elected officials and other leaders), condemned the unjust treatment of food industry workers, the inhumane slaughter of animals, and the rampant greed of food industry giants who are in a race to produce the cheapest food.

Through its organizing efforts in several states and a new food justice initiative, the Center for New Community focuses on worker safety while confronting the racial structure of the food system in the U.S. Our food justice work envisions a food system supported by both ethical and just practices in order that everyone authentically shares in the bountiful harvest.

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