Appealing to the Trump administration's calls to reduce "regulatory burdens on the industry," the National Chicken Council has submitted a petition to remove a cap on the speed at which chickens can be processed in poultry plants. The petition, created by the group last month, calls the cap “arbitrary” and cites it as a key hinderance to the industry's ability to compete on the global marketplace.
The Council has asked the USDA to allow poultry plants to “operate at any line speed at which they can maintain process control.”
The current Obama-era protocol limits lines to 140 birds per minute.
Advocates for worker safety say that speeding up lines any further could harm plant employees, who are already working very quickly with potentially dangerous tools to process the birds. Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, wrote in a letter to the USDA that workers at these plants “hold some of the most dangerous and difficult jobs in America,” calling the implications of the possible change “striking.”
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration reports that poultry workers are twice as likely to sustain serious injuries at work and six times as likely to become ill from work-related reasons as compared to the average private industry worker.
"There's no data to support that this would be safe," Debbie Berkowitz, a senior fellow at the National Employment Law Project, a research and advocacy group in Washington, tells NBC. "Even at existing line speeds, it's extremely unsafe."
While advocates of the change claim that regulations over these plants are outdated and were developed to monitor problems that are no longer prevalent in the industry, experts say that it is in fact thanks to these laws that many formerly common industry health issues have been eradicated or reduced.
“The conditions are safer now because we have laws that were written because of the Upton Sinclair era,” Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch tells Gizmodo. “We have laws that say that the government will be in plants and they’ll look at every bird and they’ll look at every carcass. The industry loves taking shots at those rules. And that’s what this is. You’re taking animals apart and that’s messy and you have to do that carefully.”
A previous request to increase line speeds to 175 birds per minute was rejected in 2015, after warnings it would endanger workers and increase the likelihood of food contamination.
A similar push is currently in process at pork processing plants, reports NBC.
“While the details haven't been made public, outside groups expect that the proposed rule could increase the maximum line speed from about 1,100 to 1,300 hogs per hour,” reports the outlet.
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