USDA Increases Line Speeds, Endangering Poultry Processing Plant Workers

Published Jan 9, 2019

The USDA announced that poultry processing plants will be allowed to increase their lines speeds. This proposed rule puts poultry workers at a higher risk of injury.

What happened: The US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced that it will allow some poultry processing plants to increase their line speed from 140 birds per minute (bpm) to 175 bpm through a waiver program. The announcement was released without a chance for the public to comment. It also marks a change of direction from January 2018, when the USDA and FSIS retracted a proposed rule to remove any line speed restrictions at poultry plants due in part to the thousands of public comments expressing concerns over worker safety issues.

Why it matters: When governmental agencies ignore scientific evidence that strongly links high line speeds with poultry worker injuries, they are failing to protect a portion of the populace from the right to enter a workplace without fear of injury.

Poultry workers are at a high risk for experiencing work-related injuries on the job. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) found that poultry workers suffer serious injuries at double the rate of private industry and that poultry workers are more than six times as likely to have a work-related illness. Data from OSHA in 2013 showed that poultry workers had carpal tunnel syndrome at rates more than seven times the national average and that poultry workers were 4.5 times more likely to identify repetitive motion as the exposure that resulted in a serious injury. The academic literature corroborates these findings by identifying high rates of carpel tunnel syndrome in poultry workers (see here, here, and here). Moreover, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a non-partisan agency that reports to Congress, has found that workers at meat and poultry plants are reluctant to speak up about injuries due to fear of retaliation. This suggests the statistics are noticeably underreporting the problem.

The USDA waiver policy to allow increased line speeds—a policy that is almost certain to increase repetitive hand motions—failed to take into account the science showing an increased risk of injury to workers. The policy stemmed from a September 2017 petition by the National Chicken Council, a poultry industry lobbying group, to remove the line speed limit at some processing plants. The petition heavily criticized the limit of 140 birds per minute (bpm), which had been established by FSIS under the Obama administration in 2014. In response, the Trump administration initiated a review and invited public comment. After receiving more than 100,000 comments on the proposal, FSIS denied the petition in January 2018, but left open the door on the issue. In late February 2018, FSIS announced in its Constituent Update newsletter that it was making “available criteria that it will use to consider waiver requests” for poultry plants to increase their line speeds up to 175 bpm. Four poultry plants requested to be part of this waiver program, a move condemned by the National Employment Law Project, Oxfam, and ten other national organizations representing poultry workers, worker rights advocates, workplace safety experts, and consumer health advocates. In September 2018, FSIS published an announcement in the Federal Register that formalized the waiver system for increased line speeds, contingent on a set of criteria.

FSIS justified the policy on the outcomes of a 17-year-old pilot program that has allowed 20 chicken plants to up their line speed to a maximum of 175 bpm, saying that “these establishments were capable of consistently producing safe, wholesome and unadulterated product and meeting pathogen reduction and other performance standards when operating under line speeds” of up to 175 bpm. However, FSIS has so far failed to demonstrate the pilot program’s viability through objective and statistical methodology. Furthermore, the pilot program appears to have a pronounced record of decreased oversight and food safety and worker safety problems. According to a previous FSIS inspector who was charged with evaluating the effectiveness of the pilot program, the plants repeatedly failed to prevent incidents of visible fecal contamination on the poultry products. The GAO raised concerns over this pilot program in 2001 and 2013, identifying key limitations in the data collections and analyses used by FSIS to evaluate food safety, food quality, and the prevalence of Salmonella at the poultry programs participating under the pilot program. In addition, the Office of Inspector General, the USDA’s watchdog, criticized FSIS in 2013 for not adequately overseeing a similar pilot program with high line speeds at swine processing plants, saying “in the 15 years since the program’s inception, FSIS did not critically assess whether the new inspection process had measurably improved food safety” at each swine plant that was part of the pilot program, “a key goal of the program.”

This is not the first time that the USDA under the Trump administration has enacted policies that favor large agribusiness industries over farmers, workers, and the public (see here and here). Workers at poultry plants face low wages, a decreased ability to speak up about hazardous working conditions, and are routinely denied adequate bathroom breaks. OSHA has long recognized that line speeds at poultry plants represents an “ergonomic hazard” for workers, even stating in guidelines from 1993 that line speeds should be modified in order to protect workers. When the scientific evidence strongly suggests that increased line speeds are a high-risk factor for injury to poultry workers, the policy enacted by a federal agency should reflect this robust scientific evidence. When federal agencies enact public health policies that are not firmly based on scientific evidence, they risk causing substantial harm to segments of the population.