The influential Charlotte Observer and its affiliates in North Carolina are running a series of investigative articles on The House of Raeford which has implications for the entire poultry industry. Buffeted by adverse publicity over alleged deviations from acceptable flock welfare and pre-slaughter handling, U.S. broiler and turkey producers had better recognize the potential for a new wave of consumer resistance over injuries and the wellbeing of workers. It would be unfortunate if the opponents of our intensive livestock and poultry industries would be reinforced by new constituencies.

The validity of the statements made anonymously by current employees and overtly by ex-workers of the company in question are not the focus of this commentary. Whether sub-standard or illegal practices occurred is for the state and federal authorities and our courts to determine. What is of concern is the perception which will be created that the House of Raeford has followed practices representing institutional neglect, deliberate concealment of injuries and exploitation of uneducated and vulnerable Hispanic laborers. The extensively detailed news reports will obviously influence readers who are consumers of turkey and broiler products, especially when contrasted with the responses by company representatives, which at best can be characterized as muted and disingenuous denials.

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There are larger issues than the apparent ergonomic injuries attributed to handling heavy carcasses and manual deboning carried out in the plants operated by the company. The first involves the immigration status of workers. If legal and documented, they should have resource to regulatory authorities and medical facilities and there should be no implied hint of exploitation or coercion by the employer. The second consideration relates to the regulations which have not been implemented regarding prevention of ergonomic injuries. Federal and state standards with fair oversight are required which protect workers from harm and prevent spurious claims against employers. Clearly defined procedures to prevent, diagnose, record and respond to ergonomic injuries will establish a level playing field with respect to costs and absolve the Industry of adverse publicity arising from the actions of individual processors. The obviously higher costs of implementing a comprehensive program to prevent workplace accidents and injuries should justify the purchase and installation of capital equipment to displace manual labor. Adoption of in ovo vaccination in place of repetitive injection of chicks and the introduction of mechanical harvesting to replace stoop labor have provided both direct and unintended benefits in addition to resolving primary problems relating to workplace injury. Mechanical thigh deboning and breast filleting equipment is achieving acceptable levels of yield and cost-efficiency especially where acceptable standards of operation are enforced. The last and possibly the most important component of wellbeing relates to corporate culture. The impetus has to be provided by the highest levels of management and extend through to line supervisors. Training of employees, upgrading equipment and the working environment and ensuring workplace safety are ongoing processes and require open communication and application of current science and technology.

The adverse publicity resulting from the House of Raeford articles is difficult to assess at this stage. It is evident that any negative perceptions created among consumers and clients represented by the NCCR and FMI will be to the detriment of the entire industry. It behooves us to look inward and resolve issues which may represent the next area of concern among our stakeholders.