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Are Faster Poultry Factory Lines a Risk to Consumers?

The current limit for line speeds in poultry processing factories is 140 birds per minute. (U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr)
The current limit for line speeds in poultry processing factories is 140 birds per minute. (U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr)
December 11, 2017

PIERRE, S.D. – Consumer safety could be at risk from the poultry industry's proposal to allow faster line speeds in factories, workers' rights advocates say.

The National Chicken Council, which represents the industry, has petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to grant increased line speeds.

The current limit is 140 birds per minute, but speeds could go up to the industry-preferred 175 birds per minute, or about three per second.

Debbie Berkowitz, a senior fellow with the National Employment Law Project, says if the agency approves, poultry plants across the country could increase their line speeds, but she says that would come at a cost for consumers.

"The United States Department of Agriculture sets the line speed in poultry industry to protect consumers, because you want to make sure that the inspectors have time to look at the birds, to do the testing that they need to do to make sure that the consumers are protected," she states.

The USDA is accepting public comment on this proposal through Wednesday.

The National Chicken Council says plants need high line speeds to keep up with international competitors. Poultry is a $300 million industry in South Dakota.

Berkowitz says the higher pace also would jeopardize the safety of workers in an already dangerous industry. She points out that poultry workers perform their duties at breakneck speeds as it is.

"They have among the highest numbers of reported severe injuries such as amputations,” she states. “They have illness rates that are five times the average for all industries (and) injury rates that are 1.5 times as high as all industries."

The poultry industry contends that workers aren't at greater risk from increased line speeds.

Berkowitz says another hazard for workers is the growing use of chemicals on birds to kill pathogens, which can make workers sick.

Berkowitz questions whether this process even is legal. She says the USDA studied the current limit for line speeds for three years during the Obama administration and found it should be kept where it is.

"It would be like you petitioning as a consumer, 'I'd like to be exempt from the speed limit on this highway on my way home because I know in other states they have a higher miles per hour that they allow,'” she points out. “I mean, this is just a ridiculous request."

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - SD