Our VoiceNews & Politics

Budget Cuts Leave Consumers and Food Workers At Risk

Charlotte Williams • Apr 14, 2011

Last Friday night, Washington, D.C. politicians went into overdrive in order agree upon an 11th hour 2011 federal budget.   Framed as a fight to the bitter end, compromises became personally evident by Monday morning as the long undetermined budget cuts were translated into harsh realities for the working class, underemployed, and unemployed across this nation.

Few departments of government remained unscathed as hard won social, environmental and progressive economic improvement strategies underwent deep to devastating cuts.  One potentially disastrous $10 million budget reduction impacts the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Modernization Act which was signed into law January 4, 2011.   How soon we forget.

Democratic lobbying efforts purported concern for funding for food safety, particularly after experiencing the repeated food contamination incidents that resulted in injury or death of U.S. citizens.  However, under the new bill, food safety and inspection will be funded at $1 billion, or $10 million below the fiscal year 2010 level.  The recent FDA legislation sought to ensure that facility and food processing inspections are conducted under the highest standards.

The budget cuts will likely mean that even fewer food safety inspectors will be available to conduct the “more frequent inspections” and inspections “based on risk” as called for in the FDA legislation.   In addition, foods and facilities that pose a greater risk to food safety were to have received the most attention.  These facilities and foods referred to include the meat products produced in this nation’s meatpacking and poultry processing factories – factories in which both worker and consumer food safety are constantly at risk.

Two government offices with an interdependent, yet constant “who’s on first” scope of authority for food processing, consumer and worker safety are, the United State Department of Agriculture (USDA) Office  for Food Safety Inspection Services and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA).

For years, these two agencies have bantered back and forth about which is responsible for keeping line-speeds in meat and poultry processing plants at safe levels. Slower line speeds would reduce the incidence of worker injury, particularly repetitive motion- repetitive stress injuries.

Sadly, unenforced USDA, FDA and OSHA legislation continues to undermine both product and worker safety in the food industry which impacts the quality of life for both consumers and workers.  Food workers, primarily immigrants and refugees, endure shameless treatment and long hours in every sector of the U.S. food industry - in plants, on factory farms and in the fields - for low wages, often victimized by injury, verbal abuse, and wage theft.

A former meatpacking worker shared her story of slipping and falling on the “kill floor” between hundreds of pounds of pig carcasses only to be sent to the nurse’s office for ibuprofen.  It was eventually determined that she had actually suffered a severe knee injury.  Minimal concern for worker safety is commonplace in an environment where workers stand for 10-12 hours, often without bathroom breaks, and make 20,000 cuts per day.

As millions of Americans struggle to make healthy choices in a time of intense economic restructuring, politicians on both sides of the aisle continue to play a game of Russian roulette with the lives of both consumers and food industry workers.

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