Thursday, July 28, 2005

Finger in food: Groundhog Day

It's happened again: someone finds part of a finger in his food. We've done this post before. This time it was a 3/4-inch fingertip in the vegetarian meal of a California prison inmate. Obviously this isn't fraud because the lucky guy who was given the finger was in isolation and he was served the "foreign object" in a frozen entree brought to his cell. Moreover, the food vendor to the prison, G.A. Food Services, has admitted one of its employees sliced off his right middle finger when cleaning a filling machine on the assembly line in July 2004:
At the time of the accident at the Florida plant, a department manager mistakenly thought all flesh had been flushed from the machine, the letter said. When workers couldn't find the fingertip, they assumed it had been washed down the drain.

In the March 29 letter, included in the lawsuit, quality assurance director Frank Curto apologized for the "foreign object that was found in one of our frozen entrees" and "any inconveniences that were incurred as a result of this incident."

The apology apparently wasn't good enough for Rocha, 29, of Los Angeles, incarcerated at the maximum security prison on drug, weapon and assault charges. Merin filed the suit Wednesday in federal court in San Francisco. (Suzanne Herel, San Francisco Chronicle)
It turns out the inmate doesn't sound like a sweetheart. He was serving 15 years for assault with a firearm and given an additional eight years for assault while in prison, hence the isolation cell. In this country no one feels any sympathy for prison inmates anyway (guilty or innocent), although we lock people up at a prodigious rate. But that's not the point here. It doesn't have to do with the person who got the finger, but the person who gave it to him, a worker in a non-union shop in a "right-to-work" state. A "right-to-work" state is a state where employers and unions are forbidden to enter into agreements requiring union membership of employees. This allows non-dues paying employees to benefit from the collective bargaining agreements of the union. These laws are widely regarded by the labor movement as blatantly anti-union because they make it difficult for unions to stay financially viable.

One important function of a union is to bargain for safe working conditions for its members. The food manufacturing industry continues to be one of the most dangerous. Here's the description by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics of working conditions in this industry:
Many production jobs in food manufacturing involve repetitive, physically demanding work. Food manufacturing workers are highly susceptible to repetitive strain injuries to hands, wrists, and elbows. This type of injury is especially common in meat-processing and poultry-processing plants. Production workers often stand for long periods and may be required to lift heavy objects or use cutting, slicing, grinding, and other potentially dangerous tools and machines.

In 2002, there were 9.3 cases of work-related injury or illness per 100 full-time food manufacturing workers, much higher than the rate of 5.3 cases for the private sector as a whole. Injury rates vary significantly among specific food manufacturing industries, ranging from a low of 3.8 per 100 workers in flavoring extracts and syrups plants to 14.9 per 100 in meat packing plants, the highest rate in food manufacturing.


Because of the considerable mechanization in the industry, most food manufacturing plants are noisy, with limited opportunities for interaction among workers. In some highly automated plants, “hands-on” manual work has been replaced by computers and factory automation, resulting in less waste and higher productivity. While much of the basic production—such as trimming, chopping, and sorting—will remain labor intensive for many years to come, automation is increasingly being applied to various functions, including inventory control, product movement, packing, and inspection.

Working conditions also depend on the type of food being processed. For example, some bakery employees work at night or on weekends and spend much of their shift near ovens that can be uncomfortably hot. In contrast, workers in dairies and meat-processing plants work typical daylight hours and may experience cold and damp conditions. Some plants, such as those producing processed fruits and vegetables, operate on a seasonal basis, so workers are not guaranteed steady, year-round employment and occasionally travel from region to region seeking work.
So no surprise it's happened again. And again. And again. Bon apetit.