USDA to study whether faster poultry-processing line speeds harm workers
Washington — Seeking to “best assess” the impact of increased line speeds on worker safety in poultry-processing plants, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service plans to study the effects.
According to an FSIS constituent update issued July 29, the study will inform future rulemaking related to line speed waivers issued under the agency’s New Poultry Inspection System. In January, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia granted a USDA motion for remand in a case “challenging the issuance of line speed waivers to certain establishments” in the NPIS.
As part of the study, FSIS will analyze monthly worker safety data submitted by poultry-processing plants that receive a modified waiver permitting their line speeds to increase to 175 birds a minute from the current 140. Additionally, “contracted worker safety experts” will make onsite visits to various establishments.
Plants with existing line speed waivers must agree to participate in the study and provide worker safety data to receive a modified waiver, which will be effective “at least through the end of the study.” The deadline to consent to participation is Sept. 1, and establishments will have until Sept. 30 to submit the initial worker safety data requested. If a plant chooses not to participate or provide requested safety data, its waiver will be terminated.
Opponents of accelerated line speeds say the increase compromises the health and safety of poultry workers, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Responding to President Joe Biden’s January 2021 Executive Order that withdrew a USDA proposed rule to increase poultry-processing line speeds, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union President Marc Perrone called the move “the type of commitment to the health and safety of frontline food workers that the American people expect and deserve.”
The National Chicken Council, which represents the poultry industry and is an established advocate of unrestricted line speeds, contends that operating at speeds of up to 175 bpm remains a long-standing and safe industry practice.
An NCC analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that, in 2019, the total recordable rate among workers in the poultry processing industry was 3.2 cases per 100 full-time equivalent workers – down from 3.5 per 100 FTE workers in 2018 and 14.2 in 2000. Further, the 2019 industry rate was below both the rate for the food manufacturing sector (4.0) and manufacturing at large (3.3), marking the first time the industry rate was lower than the total manufacturing rate, per NCC.
“The more than fivefold decrease in injury rates in the poultry industry over the last two decades coincided with a period of substantial increases in line speeds, bird size and automation,” NCC says. “Technological improvements in processing correspond to safer workplaces, as the data show.”