Under the Trump Administration, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) approved waivers for 54 plants to increase poultry line speeds to 175 birds per minute (bpm); the law previously set the maximum line operating speeds at 140 bpm. A pending rule by the Trump White House would have made those waivers permanent and allowed other processing plants to adopt the increased line speed without the need to apply for a waiver.
However, during President Biden’s first week in office, USDA has withdrawn this proposal, drawing both criticism and support from the food industry.
“It would be unfortunate for the new administration to ignore three decades of science, data, and court decisions, in a move that would hamstring the U.S. poultry industry on a global scale,” says Ashley Peterson, PhD, senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the National Chicken Council. She says that poultry line speeds of up to 175 bpm have been used in the U.S industry for more than two decades, and were originally put forth by the Clinton administration. “The modernized system has been studied, debated, and reviewed in depth for 25 years to assure its effectiveness in further modernizing chicken inspection, while improving food safety and protecting workers,” Dr. Peterson adds. “While the poultry industry has been safely increasing line speeds over the past 25 years, our injury and illness rate has fallen 86% and is now at an all-time low, according to the most recent data from the Department of Labor.”
The line speeds in question deal with evisceration, which is almost entirely automated today. Scientific data supported by a new study, which collected data from 97 slaughter establishments processing young chickens, concluded that evisceration line speeds do not affect food safety.
However, not everyone agrees that increasing line speeds is a good idea. Tony Corbo, senior government affairs representative for Food & Water Action, noted that by increasing line speeds up to 175 bpm, FSIS inspectors on slaughter lines would be required to inspect three birds per second and plant workers would need to work faster to hang carcasses on the slaughter line.
“How can anyone think that poultry will be safer under those conditions?” he says. “These are already dangerous jobs but FSIS just found a way to make them even more dangerous. Food safety and worker safety should be strengthened and not weakened during this pandemic; Congress needs to step in.”