Too Fast, Too Dangerous

The Trump Administration's Harmful Deregulation of Poultry Production Line Speeds

By Zach Brown

The election is finally over, but the Trump Administration’s parting gesture is an onslaught of reckless and cruel policy changes risking the well-being of everyday Americans. One target is the health and safety of poultry plant workers. The Administration is attempting to increase the federal speed limits on poultry production lines, putting these essential workers at increased risk of injury and COVID-19, and negatively affecting the amount of quality control we have on America’s meat supply.

On November 6, 2020, three days after the election, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) submitted a proposed rule to permanently increase maximum line speed limit by 25% — from the long-established 140 birds killed and processed per minute to 175 birds per minute. This rushed effort with an extremely limited period for public comment is no surprise. At the request of the National Chicken Council, the USDA proposed a rule change in 2017 that would completely remove line speed restrictions. They were forced to abandon the rule change when there was overwhelming opposition from individual citizens and from labor, health, consumer, and animal rights advocates. The current midnight-hour rule change is designed to avoid the same public outcry.

The existing maximum line speed of 140 birds per minute is already dangerous for workers. Not only are poultry line workers highly prone to repetitive strain injuries like carpel tunnel syndrome, but the fast pace often results in traumatic injuries such as lacerations, crushed hands, fractures, and full finger amputations. In fact, poultry processing has a higher rate of injury than other infamously hazardous professions such as logging, coal mining, and oil and gas extraction. Undoubtedly, faster line speeds increase the risk of these injuries.

Trump’s last minute rule putting profits over people could have even more dire consequences during the COVID-19 global pandemic. As production line speeds increase, workers are forced to stand shoulder to shoulder, increasing the risk of transmission of the deadly coronavirus that is predicted to take the lives of over 350,000 Americans by early January, 2021. For this reason, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has actually recommended that line speeds be slowed down. Despite the CDC guidance and the fact that poultry plants across the nation are already hotbeds of infection, the Trump Administration is plowing ahead.

This proposed rule is not the first giveaway to big livestock processing companies this year. In April, in the middle of a national pandemic, the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) gave permits to 15 large poultry plants to increase their line speeds beyond the legal limit. All of the plants had a sordid history of OSHA workplace safety violations, severe injuries and/or active COVID-19 outbreaks. And while Public Citizen sued to stop the destructive waivers, the Trump Administration was unfortunately able to follow through with their active disregard for workers, allowing the plants’ line speeds to increase.

Our poultry workers deserve better.

In order for the line speed rule change to be finalized, it must be published in the Federal Register. The crunch created by the onslaught of proposed last-minute regulations could work against Trump. A simple backup in the publication process could prevent the new rule from going into effect. If this occurs, newly elected President Joe Biden should take swift action and put a hold on the rule change.

If the proposed rule change is finalized before January 20, 2021, Congress has the power to override the regulation. In July, 2020 Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) introduced The Safe Line Speeds in COVID-19 Act in the Senate, a bill to cancel all existing line speed waivers and and prevent regulation changes that would increase the maximum line speed. Representatives Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), and Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) introduced the companion bill in the House. Obviously the bill did not pass. But Congress can and should work quickly to pass a bill reducing the line speed limits and eliminating the power of FSIS to issue waivers.

If we truly care about our essential workers, their families and our communities, we cannot allow the Trump’s cynical corporate favors to work against the health and safety of the tireless workers keeping our country afloat.