Don’t Allow Faster Poultry Line Speeds, Groups Tell USDA

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By Teaganne Finn

Poultry workers, non-profit organizations, and unions are demanding the Department of Agriculture reject an industry petition to increase poultry line speeds in plants.

The poultry line speeds in most facilities are currently capped at 140 birds per minute. The industry has proposed a new system that would get rid of limits altogether for facilities that choose to take part in a new waiver program.

The coalition of worker rights and food safety groups met Oct. 16 with top officials from the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service—Paul Kiecker, FSIS acting administrator, and Carmen Rottenberg, acting deputy under secretary for the Office for Food Safety.

“We need to express our complete opposition,” Deborah Berkowitz, senior fellow at the National Employment Law Project, told Bloomberg Government. NELP is part of the coalition and said in a press release “there are no grounds on which the FSIS can legally grant this industry petition.”

“They understood where we were coming from,” Shelia Harvel, a poultry worker at a Wayne Farms LLC facility in Decatur, Ala., told Bloomberg Government after the meeting.

Waiver System Sought

The National Chicken Council presented a petition to the USDA on Sept. 1 requesting that the FSIS implement a waiver system that would permit young-chicken slaughtering plants to operate without line speed limits imposed by the New Poultry Inspection System.

Opponents of the petition say current speeds are already too fast and have a high rate of injury. Berkowitz said she works firsthand with poultry workers who say there is no room to add workers to the line, and an increased speed would cause a rise in carpal tunnel syndrome, a common injury for poultry workers.

Harvel has been working in the poultry industry for 30 years and has endured surgeries on both hands.

“There’s just not enough room and the increase would just cause more problems,” she said.

The United Food and Commercial Workers union president, Marc Perrone, sent a letter to the FSIS Oct. 10 warning that faster line speeds would make the industry “dramatically less safe, both for workers and consumers.”

Industry Cites Cost Savings

The poultry industry says that allowing unlimited speeds wouldn’t compromise food safety and would give U.S. plants more birds to process to keep up with foreign competitors.

Additionally, the NCC argued in its letter this change would be consistent with President Donald Trump’s regulatory streamlining agenda.

“FSIS could apply the cost savings associated with allowing establishments to operate at increased line speeds to offset the costs of future new regulations that will actually generate food safety benefits,” said the petition.

No timeline for a decision has been set.

The FSIS “will continue to consider line speeds at establishments that are capable of consistently producing safe, wholesome, and unadulterated product and are meeting pathogen reduction and other performance standards,” a USDA spokesperson told Bloomberg Government.

House Democrats opposed the faster line speed by writing a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on Sept. 29. The lawmakers said the USDA hasn’t done its “due diligence” in evaluating the safety of existing poultry plant line speeds and that it is “thoughtless and unsafe” to allow higher speeds.

Public comments on the petition will be accepted until Dec. 13 on Regulations.gov.

To contact the reporter on this story: Teaganne Finn in Washington at tfinn@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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