I recently attended a conference that addressed the safety of food. It was called Empowering Employees to Protect Food Integrity and Protection for Whistleblowers, and was coordinated by the Government Accountability Project in Washington DC. Joining me was an immigrant worker named Maria, who spoke about the working conditions at her job and how safety for workers affects the quality of food which they produce on a daily basis. Maria called on the Government Accountability Project and others to look into the working conditions in the meat processing industry, which remains one the most dangerous places to work in this country.
I admire Maria, and the thousands of immigrants, refugees and workers of color that feed us every day. If we, as consumers, require safe quality food, then it is only fair that we push for safe working conditions in this industry. Maria and other workers in her plant are required to produce quality meat cuts for 8 to 10 hours a day, while conveyor belts carry chunks of meat at extremely fast speeds. Maria describes this as “humans competing with machines”, not safe production. She asks,“where is the safety in all this? Yet they ask us to produce quality products.”
According to Donna Rosenbaum co-founder of Safe Tables Our Priority, 14 people die every day from food borne illnesses. I don’t know about you, but I think this number is too high. Can we reduce it? I believe we can if we give the necessary tools to workers so they can be our first line of defense. This could be accomplished when workers are informed of their rights and trained properly about what safety hazards to look for on the line. But it is hard for workers to advocate for this while working in the plants. When a worker speaks up about poor safety conditions or becomes a whistleblower, they are usually ignored or fired. That makes consumers more likely to be affected by unsafe foods.
Workers don’t want to lose their jobs in this economy; they have a responsibility to feed their families just like the rest of us, and that makes it much harder to speak out. We need legislation that will give full protection to whistleblowers. When workers in the food industry are safe and equipped, they can start monitoring for better treatment of animals as well. Some panelists at this conference spoke about the treatment of animals and others about field migrants in Oregon who are fighting for bathroom breaks so they are not forced to use the fields where they work.
Simple things that many of us take for granted could benefit and protect us from so much. These are huge issues to undertake even with enough support from agencies like OSHA and the USDA. Through training from these agencies, workers believe they can drastically improve workplace and food safety.
Support immigrants in the Midwest by donating to the Center for New Community’s empowerment projects. Help us encourage agency officials to form strong bonds with meat and poultry processing workers in the rural Midwest.
Our health depends on it.