Federal agencies Food Manufacturing

USDA denies industry petition to increase poultry-processing line speeds

chicken production line

Photo: andresr/iStockphoto

Washington — The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service has denied a National Chicken Council petition seeking unrestricted line speeds in poultry-processing plants.

The petition, submitted Sept. 1, requested a waiver system to allow poultry-processing establishments to operate under the New Poultry Inspection System without maximum line speeds, currently set at 140 birds per minute.

The denial is the latest in an ongoing debate between the poultry industry and regulators, dating to 2012, when USDA began a move to update the poultry-inspection system. After two years of public comment, including comments from worker safety advocates, the agency decided against a proposal that would have increased line speeds to 175 birds per minute.

The poultry industry has an injury rate two times the national average for all industries and an illness rate six times the national average, according to data from OSHA. It reported 180 severe injuries from January 2015 to September 2016 – the 12th most by industry and higher than construction, landscaping and sawmills.

Those numbers are from the 29 states that operate under federal OSHA’s jurisdiction – 21 states and Puerto Rico operate under State Plans. Both the Government Accountability Office and OSHA have said workplace injuries are underreported, and they – along with NIOSH – have pointed to the poultry industry as an example.

Last October, a coalition of 13 advocacy organizations and poultry workers met with USDA to urge the agency to deny calls for a line speed increase. USDA also received letters from lawmakers both opposing and supporting an increase.

The National Chicken Council’s petition called the current line speed limit “arbitrary,” arguing that processing plants in other countries safely manage line speeds of up to 200 birds per minute. NCC also cited the performance of 20 establishments included in a pilot program that tested the ability to manage line speeds of up to 175 birds per minute. In its denial of the petition, USDA states that the pilot had shown FSIS was able to properly inspect carcasses at 175 birds per minute but provided no data for line speeds faster than that, adding it would take the data collected from the pilot to form criteria for future requests for line speed waivers.

In a statement issued Jan. 30, NCC President Michael Brown said NCC was disappointed but encouraged that the denial left open possibilities for future line speed increases. “That was the original intent of the petition, and we look forward to working with the agency and our members on the soon-to-be-released criteria to apply for such a request,” Brown said.

Oxfam, a global advocacy group that works to end poverty, helped organize protests against the increased line speeds and voiced its support of USDA’s decision.

“While we welcome this victory for the workers across the country, we also sound a note of caution about the potential for individual plants to ask to raise the speed in their operations,” Minor Sinclair, director of Oxfam’s U.S. program, said in a Jan. 30 press release.

“Workers report that they’re already working at breakneck speed – slicing and cutting 40 or 50 birds per minute. They’re exhausted and hurting, and they worry about the problems they see in the food supply.”

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