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Avian Influenza (H5N1) and the Food Chain: The link between workers’ rights, working conditions, food safety and public health

Posted to the IUF website 07-Mar-2006

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As the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of avian influenza spreads across the globe, public concern about the safety of poultry products has resulted in a sharp drop in sales that has seriously affected the employment security of workers in the poultry industry. At the same time, there is growing public alarm at the prospect of the H5N1 virus mutating into a new strain capable of human-to-human transmission. This has raised fears of a devastating global pandemic like the 1918 influenza outbreak that killed more than 50 million people.(1)

While these issues of food safety and virus mutation have drawn extensive media attention, a crucial issue linking both aspects of public health has been missed. This link is the crucial position of agricultural and food workers in the poultry industry who are on the front line of the battle against avian influenza. Poultry workers have the potential to identify infected flocks and ensure that outbreaks are quickly and properly contained. They are also in the best position to determine whether minimum food safety standards are being implemented, and whether processed poultry meat and eggs are handled in ways that minimize the risk of infection. Such a proactive role by poultry workers and their unions could help restore confidence and public trust in food safety, both as a means of protecting the public interest and protecting jobs.

Another crucial aspect of this link between poultry workers and public health concerns the fact that they - more than anyone else - face intensive, daily occupational exposure to the risk of avian influenza. Poultry workers are therefore one of the most likely vectors for a mutated H5N1 virus capable of human-to-human transmission. This means that the capacity of governments at multiple levels to protect the public is contingent on the linkages along the food-chain which bind public health and food safety to the working conditions and rights of agricultural and food workers.

In its present form the H5N1 virus can be transmitted to humans through contact with secretions and excretions from an infected bird, such as saliva, nasal secretions and feces. Since birds carry influenza viruses in their intestines the feces of an infected bird is particularly hazardous. But it is not just direct contact with feces that poses a risk. Infection can also result from contact with any surfaces contaminated with the feces of an infected bird. The virus can even be transmitted in dust contaminated with feces.

Therefore, in terms of the occupational hazards posed by the H5N1 virus, workers must be concerned not only with direct contact with the blood, bodily fluids or feces of infected birds , but also any surfaces or dust that could be contaminated. In addition to workers who handle live poultry, clean poultry houses/cages, catch poultry, slaughter poultry, clean slaughtered poultry, clean up after slaughtering, handle uncooked poultry carcasses, handle uncooked meat on processing lines (and any of the other jobs in between), we have to add all those workers who come into contact with surfaces and dust on poultry farms, vehicles used to transport poultry, slaughterhouses, breeding and hatching facilities, and poultry processing plants.(2) In addition, there are agricultural workers whose work brings them into contact with fertilizers derived from chicken manure and – at the other end of the food chain – hotel, restaurant and catering workers who handle uncooked chicken products.

Since eggs seem to be a surface most likely to retain traces of feces (remember we are talking about dust), all those workers handling, cleaning and processing eggs must be added to the list of jobs involving occupational exposure to the H5N1 virus. What would seem a logical conclusion concerning eggs (a surface that may be contaminated with feces), has eluded most national action plans and guidelines on avian influenza. In several countries there are guidelines, public advisories, and fact-sheets concerning the safety of cooked eggs for consumers. But there is virtually nothing – in any country - concerning the risks faced by workers handling eggs in all the stages leading up to their sale for cooking. The same problem is evident in official guidelines stating that "highly processed" poultry products are safe for consumption, but fail to address the safety of workers involved in processing these products. (These claims also fail to take into account the discovery of the H5N1 virus in frozen duck meat imported into South Korea from a processing plant in Shanghai in 2001.)(3)This imbalance not only illustrates the way in which public health guidelines are geared towards reassuring rather than educating the public, it also reveals a serious neglect of the realities of the farming and production process.

Take dust, for example. We are told that the H5N1 virus may be contracted by humans who inhale dust contaminated with the feces of an infected bird. Yet dust is already a common problem in poultry breeding and egg production and processing plants. Problems of high levels of dust in poorly ventilated, enclosed facilities are common throughout the industry. In many countries unions have long fought for the right of workers to be provided with appropriate face masks or respirators, while unions that have won that battle are fighting against the deduction of the costs of essential protective equipment from workers’ pay! That tells us something important about the link between working conditions, rights and the prospects for containing major viral outbreaks.

This direct link between working conditions, workers’ rights, food safety and public health is clearly illustrated in the problem of increased line speeds in the meat processing industry. For decades the IUF and its affiliates have fought against increases in line speeds in meat processing because of its serious impact on workers’ health and the deterioration in food safety and hygiene. As meat is cut and processed at faster rates, the risk of contamination is higher. The avian influenza pandemic reinforces this long-standing concern. Increased line speeds in poultry meat processing operations makes the safe disposal of the internal organs, blood and feces of poultry and adequate cleaning of carcasses impossible, increasing the risk of fecal contamination in processed poultry meat. In addition, the fast rate of the processing line can prevent workers from using safety equipment effectively (even gloves), as well as putting workers under immense stress. And this occurs in an industry where violations of minimal safety, health and hygiene regulations are rampant.

It would seem to be a matter of common sense that the rights and working conditions of poultry workers should be incorporated into national and international action plans to tackle actual and potential outbreaks of avian influenza infection. Yet this linkage evades even the most comprehensive public health measures. The September 2005 report of the Writing Committee of the WHO Consultation on Avian Influenza, an international scientific and medical team, makes explicit reference to a range of "at-risk occupations" that include workers at different stages along the food chain, from farming to processing and food preparation.(4) This not only failed to appear in subsequent WHO fact-sheets, guidelines and action plans, it also failed to capture the attention of the ILO. (The IUF raised the concerns of agricultural and food workers in a letter to the ILO on 30 October 2005, and again in a joint letter with Public Services International (PSI) on 27 February 2006.)

Ironically, it is precisely in the International Labour Conventions of the ILO that some much needed common sense is to be found. The Occupational Safety and Health Convention 155 (1981), covering workers in all occupations, provides workers and their union representatives with the right to enquire into health and safety conditions in the workplace, and to bring in outside expertise if necessary.(5) In addition, it asserts that "the employer cannot require workers to return to a work situation where there is continuing imminent and serious danger to life or health."(6)

Added to this is the new International Labour Convention 184 on Safety and Health in Agriculture (2001) establishes the right of agricultural workers to remove themselves from danger where there is a serious and imminent risk, and not be penalized for these actions. It also institutionalizes employers’ obligations to provide workers with information, training and safety equipment, etc., and asserts that the employer must stop work immediately if there is a serious and imminent danger to workers.

Imagine the application of these common sense measures to the current international and national responses to avian influenza (H5N1). Workers and their unions have a right to monitor possible viral outbreaks and report suspected infection of poultry flocks to the authorities; the right to health and safety equipment and facilities needed to minimize risks both for themselves and the public; the right to challenge employers about these risks and report violations; the right to remove themselves from danger without fear of penalty; etc. Most important of all is the fundamental right of workers to organize and negotiate changes in the workplace. Without this right, none of the other rights – and all the common sense that those rights entail – can be realized. This is the message that agricultural and food workers’ unions must convey to the public and impress upon governments and international agencies.

Given the delays, cover-ups, distractions and misinformation that currently characterizes government responses, unions need to act fast to inject a very large dose of common sense into public debates. While those scientists who are independent of corporate interests continue to improve our understanding of this complex virus and give new insights into the containment measures needed, unions must advance an agenda founded on a very simple fact: for agricultural and food workers to fulfill their role in protecting public health and the public interest, they must have the right to organize.

Notes

(1) The 1918 influenza virus apparently tricked the immune system into overreacting and damaging body organs, especially the lungs. The new H5N1 virus is believed to also trigger a "cytokine storm" (cytokines are pro-inflammatory proteins that is a component of the immune system) that damages the lungs, leading to respiratory failure. MCW Chan et al., "Proinflammatory cytokine responses induced by influenza A (H5N1) viruses in primary human alveolar and bronchial epithelial cells", Respiratory Research 2005, 6:135
(2) Poultry includes chicken, ducks, geese, turkeys and ostriches.
(3) Terrence M. Tumpey et al., "Characterization of a Highly Pathogenic H5N1 Avian Influenza A Virus Isolated from Duck Meat", Journal of Virology, Vol. 76, No. 12, June 2002, pp. 6344-6355.
(4) The Writing Committee of the World Health Organization (WHO) Consultation on Human Influenza A/H5, "Avian Influenza (H5N1) Infection in Humans", The New England Journal of Medicine, 353, 29 September 2005, pp.1374-85.
(5) ILO Occupational Safety and Health Convention (1981), Article 19(e)
(6) ILO Occupational Safety and Health Convention (1981), Article 19(f)