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USDA rule to increase poultry-processing line speeds under OMB review

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chicken production line

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Washington — A controversial U.S. Department of Agriculture rule that would permit line speeds at certain poultry processing plants to increase to 175 birds a minute from the current 140 is under review by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Under the proposed rule, plants operating under the New Poultry Inspection System would be allowed to increase line speeds “if certain criteria are met.” The abstract of the proposed rule, submitted Nov. 6 by USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service, states that “the proposed amendments would allow certain young chicken establishments to slaughter birds more efficiently while continuing to ensure food safety and effective online carcass inspection.” At press time, the proposal had not yet been published in the Federal Register – the next step in the regulatory process.

Advocacy groups including the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health and the National Employment Law Project have voiced opposition to the proposed rule, claiming a line speed increase will endanger the health and safety of poultry workers, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Faster line speeds will mean workers can’t be socially distant,” National COSH Co-Executive Director Jessica Martinez said in a Nov. 11 press release. “Instead, they will be packed closer together and at a higher risk of exposure to COVID-19. This last-minute push for an ill-advised rule change could be deadly for essential workers in slaughterhouses.”

In a recently published video and infographic, the National Chicken Council, which represents the poultry industry, says much of the discussion related to poultry line speeds pertains to a highly automated part of the processing line called the “evisceration line.” According to NCC, only 2% of employees in a modernized plant work on this part of the processing line, which precedes work known as “second processing” in which poultry is sliced and packaged on a line that operates about 40% slower than the evisceration line.

Responding to a request for comment on the FSIS proposal, Tom Super, spokesperson for NCC – a known advocate of unrestricted line speeds – noted that the total recordable rate of nonfatal work-related injuries and illnesses among poultry slaughter and processing workers has declined 86% in the past 25 years.

Annual data released Nov. 4 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that in 2019, the total recordable rate among workers in the industry was 3.2 cases per 100 full-time equivalent workers – down from 3.5 per 100 FTE workers in 2018. The total rate of 3.2 was below the rate for the food manufacturing sector (4.0) and manufacturing at large (3.3), NCC states in a Nov. 9 press release.

FSIS in February 2018 denied an NCC petition seeking unrestricted line speeds in poultry processing plants. However, in a notice published in the Sept. 28, 2018, Federal Register, FSIS announced it would grant waivers to allow line speeds to increase to 175 birds a minute if plant operators:

  • Operate under the New Poultry Inspection System for at least one year and comply with the system’s requirements during that time.
  • Have a “demonstrated history” of regulatory compliance, including not being involved in a public health alert or an enforcement action triggered by a Food Safety Assessment in the past 120 days.
  • Demonstrate that new equipment, procedures or technologies that allow for operation at a faster line speed will maintain or improve food safety.
  • Provide details about the establishment’s Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point system, including plans for the inhibition and reduction of salmonella.
  • Provide supporting information on how the increased line speed will not impact FSIS employee safety negatively or interfere with inspection procedures.

In a June 17 policy brief, National Employment Law Project reported that FSIS in April approved 15 poultry processing plants’ requests to increase line speeds to 175 birds a minute despite reported cases of COVID-19 among workers and at least one fatality related to the pandemic.

Debbie Berkowitz, director of workplace safety and health at NELP, in the National COSH release called the action “bad public policy” while noting the Obama administration’s 2014 rejection of a proposal to increase top line speeds to 175 birds a minute. Berkowitz contends FSIS is seeking to “push” the rule “through OMB quickly” in the closing weeks of the Trump administration.

 

Super told S+H that “this is not a political issue,” adding that line speeds of up to 175 birds a minute have been used in the industry since the Clinton administration.

“The modernized system has been studied, debated and reviewed in depth for 20-plus years to assure its effectiveness in further modernizing chicken inspection while improving food safety and protecting workers,” Super said. “In fact, it might be the most deliberative and studied proposed rule that has ever been issued. It spans three decades, four administrations – Republican and Democrat – countless scientific studies and various court cases.”

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