The poultry industry and Republican lawmakers are urging the Trump administration to make a change that could have profound implications for both worker safety and food safety.

The National Chicken Council (NCC) is asking USDA to allow production at plants participating in a new inspection system to use “any line speed” the plant’s operators deem safe. Such a waiver would discard the 140-birds-per-minute limit set by the Obama administration – a cap called “arbitrary” by the NCC in a petition sent to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

The NCC told the USDA higher speeds would level the playing field within the U.S. chicken industry and eliminate competitive barriers between the U.S. and international chicken producers.

Higher injury rates?

Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union, sent a letter to the USDA in which he cited a 2016 report from the Government Accountability Office showing that forcing lines to move faster than the current limit will expose poultry workers to higher rates of injuries and illnesses.

“Increased line speeds will also make it harder for both federal inspectors and quality control workers to properly check birds for contamination that could make consumers sick.”

Higher speeds and safety

The NCC, however, said 20 plants in HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) have been authorized to operate with line speeds up to 175 birds per minute (bpm) since 2007, “and FSIS has recognized that these plants provide the same or better levels of food safety than plants operating with a maximum line speed of 140 bpm. These establishments have proven that HIMP (and now NPIS) establishments can operate safely at the maximum speeds permitted, and there is no indication that higher line speeds would result in increased food safety or worker safety risk.”

The waivers would apply to plants participating in the New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS) and the Salmonella Initiative Program (SIP). The NPIS is itself controversial; it allows poultry companies to sort their own product for quality defects before presenting it to an FSIS inspector. Food & Water Watch, a food safety advocacy group, has opposed the NPIS, charging that the system allows companies to privatize poultry inspection.

 “FWW believes that NPIS violates the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA) requirement that federal government inspectors, and not poultry slaughter establishment staff, are responsible for condemning adulterated young chicken and turkey carcasses,” said FWW executive director Wenonah Hauter. “The organization is also concerned that allowing line speeds to increase to 140 young chickens per minute for NPIS establishments means that carcasses can pass by one federal inspector much faster than under the Streamlined Inspection System (SIS), which limits each inspector to 35 carcasses per minute, and the New Line Speed Inspection System (NELS), which limits them to 30.”

The NCC’s petition also said the speed waivers would be in line with the Trump administration’s emphasis on reducing regulatory burdens on businesses.