NORTH ALABAMA (WAFF) - M.L. Carr will make no secret of the fact that he and both his parents worked in a chicken processing plant before he went to high school, college, and stardom with the NBA.
"My mother was a splitter of gizzards," he said. "She split gizzards all day long. My father helped clean the chickens out. My job was to help load the trucks."
Carr now sits on the board of Albertville poultry provider Alatrade foods and, as Alabama poultry plants face a new round of criticism from activist groups, he said such attacks come "all the time, because you're always being targeted."
Alabama's poultry industry which, as the third biggest in the country, provides some 80,000 jobs, is being hit by two different lines of criticism from social activist groups on one hand and a former USDA inspector on the other.
Earlier this year, a report from the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center titled "Unsafe at these Speeds" asserted Alabama poultry workers are exploited, overworked, and intimidated as they continue to suffer injuries on the job under the uncaring eyes of corporate bosses.
In the report, and in subsequent media events, Appleseed and SPLC activists highlight stories from former workers such as Natashia Ford who told reporters she once got so sick on a chicken production line and had to be carried from the factory. "I had pains in my neck, hands and legs," she said.
Activists claimed to have interviewed 300 current or former Alabama poultry workers, of whom they said 72 percent reported problems with work related injuries or illnesses, repetitive motion problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome or tendonitis and 78 percent of whom complain that processing lines operate at unsafe speeds.
One worker, identified as Franco, said production lines would not stop even when mishaps occurred. "Line speeds are just too fast," he said, speaking through a translator. "Sometimes chicken would fall off the line and get contaminated. Supervisors would get angry. There wasn't time to wash it off before putting it back on the line. And those are chickens that you and me are eating on our dinner table."
That health issue has been highlighted by former USDA inspector Phyllys McKelvey of Albertville, since the agency launched a new package of standards for poultry production that put more of the responsibility for inspection on poultry producers and allow for faster production line speeds, up to 175 birds a minute.
The agency points out that poultry inspection processes haven't been updated since the 1950s and said the new standards reflect improved processing technology and a better understanding of food borne illnesses
McKelvey has become a heroine of websites like Change.org, where a petition has been launched against the new standards.
At a recent appearance in Gadsden she said that under the new inspection regimen, "you can not inspect a bird the way I was taught- hold it, check it, look inside bird, look outside the bird. Can't do that in 1/3 of a second."
Poultry producers from Albertville familiar with her story said her allegations are short on credibility and facts.
"I read what she said and there's so much untruth in that," said Alatrade Foods owner Davis Lee, "and it was just from a disgruntled federal employee, not a poultry employee, that started this whole thing."
Industry representatives complained that the "Unsafe at These Speeds" report, as well as subsequent public claims, are rife with false or misleading assertions. They asserted that the report repeatedly contrasts illness and injury rate for poultry workers; 5.8%, with those of all private sectors workers in all fields, 3.5%, instead of with an industry that would be more comparable, such as auto workers at 7.5%, passenger airline workers at 7.9% or all manufacturing workers at 4.4%.
"Now if you compare us with some office building," said Lee, "where everybody sits down in an air conditioned place, we're not going to match them in injuries, no doubt. If you compare us with auto workers or steel workers or just manufacturing jobs, I wouldn't be ashamed to put our record up against those."
M.L. Carr said the comparisons go beyond being unfair into unrealistic. "There's no way in the world that in the poultry industry, just like the steel, just like automotive, just like sports, you're going to eliminate all injuries," he said.
The U.S. Poultry and Egg Association and the National Chicken Council claimed the industry has nonetheless made dramatic progress, reducing injuries and illnesses by almost 75 percent between 1994 and 2011, a much better improvement rate than has occurred in manufacturing overall.
As for allegations of insensitivity to matters such as repetitive motion injury, the industry groups said that issue has been a focus of concern and attention for decades, pointing to a 2010 report detailing 25 years of effort to reduce repetitive motion injuries and improve workplace ergonomics for employees.
For its part, the USDA said its poultry inspection updates are based on a 13 year pilot program at 20 chicken plants that showed lower rates of salmonella bacteria contamination.
In a statement, USDA representative Lilia McFarland said "bottom line, plain and simple, we would never put forward a rule that we thought would raise the risk for anybody."
Lee said he is unconcerned about health questions over his own birds and that any visit he makes to his facilities only serves to make him hungry for chicken.
"I've been in the business 52 years," he said. "What we do is keep working to keep our workplace as safe as it can be."