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USDA Moves to Increase Poultry Line Speeds

Last week, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it will issue waivers that allow poultry slaughterhouses to increase their line speeds from the already dangerous 140 birds per minute (BPM) to 175 BPM. Increased line speeds can lead to devastating ergonomic injuries for plant workers, food safety threats for consumers, a predicable spike in whistleblower retaliation, and greater animal cruelty. This action comes within days of remarks by OIRA administrator Neomi Rao that the administration plans to ramp up its deregulatory efforts.

Last year, workers and their advocates engaged in a successful campaign to block a petition by the National Chicken Council for line speed increases. Since that time, however, the USDA has proposed faster line speeds at hog slaughter plants. And its most recent action skirted the rulemaking process altogether (by simply announcing the criteria it would use to issue waivers, without the opportunity for public comment), walking back its decision earlier in the year to withstand pressure from the poultry industry for increased line speeds. Debbie Berkowitz of the National Employment Law Project responded, “This Action clearly undermines the rulemaking process, violates the Administrative Procedures Act, and is inconsistent with the agency’s own regulations.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been aware for more than 30 years that faster line speeds in slaughter plants result in more workplace injuries. In 1993 OSHA recommended that plants lower line speeds to reduce the high rates of musculoskeletal injury among meatpacking workers. Since that time, the Government Accountability Office has repeatedly echoed OSHA’s reports and the USDA’s own watchdog, the Office of Inspector General, has warned about heightened food safety threats under the pilot program upon which the increased line speeds is based.

According to OSHA, poultry workers are nearly twice as likely to suffer from serious injuries as other workers in private industry, and more than six times as likely to have a work-related illness. In 2013, the rate of carpal tunnel syndrome for poultry workers was more than seven times the national average, and poultry industry employers were more than four and a half times more likely than other industry employers to identify repetitive motion as the exposure resulting in a serious injury in 2013. These statistics are particularly alarming given that employers often underreport injuries to disguise the full extent of the problem, whereas workers underreport injuries due to fear of retaliation. Likewise, consumers can suffer from underreported food safety problems.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Americans consume more chicken than any other meat each year. Accordingly, poultry should undergo a rigorous inspection process with extensive oversight. However, Food-borne illness due to poultry is wide-spread. Over the last decade, more food-borne deaths were attributed to poultry than to any other category of food. In 2016, poultry accounted for the most food-born deaths (19 percent), largely attributed to Listeria and Salmonella infections. Not surprisingly, dismembering and gutting up to 140 BPM (let alone 175 BPM) leaves insufficient time for all but the most cursory examinations for contamination, which eventually finds its way to the consumer.

Worker and food safety problems are compounded by the meatpacking industry’s pervasive culture of intimidation and silence, as well as management that treats workers as expendable. Meat workers are disproportionately people of color and immigrants, and they face risks of termination and threats of deportation for reporting safety concerns or becoming permanently disabled due to injuries that occurred on the line. Unlike USDA inspectors, plant employees do not have viable legal channels to challenge whistleblower retaliation.

Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), ranking member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Educations, and Related Agencies warned in a 2017 letter that “granting the [National Chicken Council] petition would further endanger an already vulnerable workforce.” In response to USDA’s latest maneuver, Rep. DeLauro told Politico, “It is unconscionable that the Trump administration would rush this process, without an ample opportunity for the public to weigh in … I urge the Trump administration to reverse course.” Indeed, the Trump administration must reverse course before it places more workers and the public in harm’s way.