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Safety and Health Magazine: NELP to USDA: Faster Poultry-Processing Line Speeds During COVID-19 Pandemic ‘Irresponsible and Reckless’

June 22, 2020

Note: this article featuring Government Accountability Project and the Food Integrity Campaign, was originally published here.

NELP to USDA: Faster Poultry-Processing Line Speeds During COVID-19 Pandemic ‘Irresponsible and Reckless’

Washington — The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service in April approved 15 poultry processing plants’ requests to increase line speeds 25% – despite reported cases of COVID-19 among workers and at least one fatality related to the ongoing pandemic, according to a new policy brief from the National Employment Law Project.

After analyzing public data, NELP contends that USDA’s actions to permit line speeds to increase to 175 birds a minute – up from the current limit of 140 birds – will endanger the health and safety of poultry workers.

“This irresponsible and reckless action by USDA, taken behind closed doors, will directly increase the risks to poultry workers and their communities of severe injury, illness and death,” NELP claims in the June 17 brief.

FSIS announced in a September 2018 Federal Register notice that it would grant waivers to allow line speeds to increase to 175 birds a minute if plant operators:

  • Operate under the New Poultry Inspection System for at least one year and comply with NPIS requirements during that time.
  • Have a “demonstrated history” of regulatory compliance, including not being involved in a public health alert or an enforcement action triggered by a Food Safety Assessment in the past 120 days.
  • Demonstrate that new equipment, procedures or technologies that allow for operation at a faster line speed will maintain or improve food safety.
  • Provide details about the establishment’s Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point system, including plans for the inhibition and reduction of salmonella.
  • Provide supporting information on how the increased line speed will not impact FSIS employee safety negatively or interfere with inspection procedures.

In February, a coalition of groups – including the Humane Society of the United States and the Government Accountability Project – filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California challenging the action, arguing that USDA is “virtually guaranteeing increases in animal cruelty and public health dangers.”

An FSIS spokesperson told Safety+Health the agency believes “so-called food safety advocates” are ignoring the role that running at maximum allowable line speeds plays in controlling for pathogens.

“As announced in a February 2018 Constituent Update,” the spokesperson said, “FSIS was considering waiver requests from NPIS young chicken establishments to permit these establishments to test new equipment, technologies or procedures that will allow them to maintain process control at faster line speeds.

“FSIS intends to use the data collected from the young chicken establishments that are granted waivers to evaluate their ability to maintain process control when operating at line speeds up to 175 birds per minute. FSIS stopped accepting new requests for line speed waivers on March 20 – weeks before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and OSHA issued their guidance for the meatpacking industry – because the agency decided that it will have enough establishments operating under waivers to provide the data that will allow us to determine whether to move forward with rulemaking.”

Tom Super, spokesperson for the National Chicken Council – a past advocate for unrestricted line speeds – told S+H the waivers “are the result of a process that started, in most cases, more than a year ago, well before COVID-19 began,” and involve a part of the processing line that “is almost entirely automated, with very few workers who are already spaced out.”

Super referenced various research he said shows that plants can operate safely at processing line speeds of up to 175 birds a minute, as well as data showing an 84% decrease in occupational injuries and illnesses among poultry slaughter and processing workers over the past 25 years.

“Whether plants are operating at 125, 140 or 175, plants have taken every precaution to help keep workers safe,” Super said, “including social distancing; temperature checks; installing plastic barriers between workstations where distancing is challenging; providing masks, faceshields and gloves for workers; staggering shifts; making break rooms available outside; multiple hand sanitizing stations; extra cleaning and sanitation of the plant; educating employees about steps to take at home to keep healthy; encouraging sick or vulnerable employees to stay home with paid sick leave; and testing for the virus.”