The U.S. Department of Agriculture has denied a petition by the National Chicken Council to remove the line speed limit on work at some slaughterhouses, a move that food safety advocates are calling a victory for workers and consumers. As the Ohio Valley ReSource reported in October, the National Chicken Council proposal could have increased the line speed for some workers in processing plants where accidents and injuries are already a concern.
Since then, the USDA has received more than 100,000 public comments. This week, the department's Food Safety Inspection Service turned the petition down.
"This is a direct rebuke of the poultry industry, whose business model is to sacrifice worker health in order to reap profits," said Debbie Berkowitz, a former senior official with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration who is now a senior fellow with the worker rights group National Employment Law Project.
Berkowitz and other food-safety and worker rights advocates opposed the council's petition, which the poultry industry said would have increased efficiency and modernized systems.
In September, the council petitioned the USDA to allow plants that operate under what's known as the New Poultry Inspection System a waiver that would remove the current limit of 175 birds per minute. But the Food Safety Inspection Service's acting administrator, Paul Kiecker, said the council's proposal is redundant.
"We currently have a procedure in place for waivers, and we would expect to follow that," he said. "We don't want to set up any kind of a separate procedure that is strictly for line speed waivers for chicken plants."
So far only 20 poultry processing plants operate under the optional inspection program, and some evidence indicates those plants have issues with worker and food safety.
A recent report by the advocacy group Food & Water Watch found that 30 percent of plants under the new system failed performance standards for salmonella. And federal data show that one Pilgrim's Pride plant in Moorefield, W.Va., operating under the new system had five severe injury reports in a two-year period. That's a higher injury rate than in any other similar facility in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia.
Kiecker said most plants that are allowed to operate at 175 birds per minute do not. "As a matter of fact, when we just had the 20 plants that were underneath the waiver when we were doing the pilot, the average line speed at that time was 131 birds per minute," he said. Kiecker said his service is working to establish criteria that would allow those plants to apply individually for higher line speeds if they can show a "history of process control."
In a statement, National Chicken Council President Mike Brown said that although he is disappointed in the decision, he is pleased that it did offer opportunity for a "viable path forward" for those plants operating under the new inspection system to petition for higher line speeds.
Berkowitz said she will be watching that process. "We are hoping that the USDA does this through full notice and comment and puts everything on their website so the public can see what they are doing," she said. "I think all of us have one main concern — and that is protecting consumers and protecting workers."
Worker-safety advocates are also keeping an eye on a proposal to increase work speeds in the pork industry. The USDA recently announced a New Swine Slaughter Inspection System that will allow pig slaughterhouses to kill pigs at higher speeds if deemed safe.