Letter to the Editor: No obfuscation if you keep to the facts

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    Written in response to: Eschewing obfuscation on poultry slaughter line speeds 

    Let’s be clear and stick to the facts when discussing line speeds in poultry plants. Parsing words and bending facts will have real victims: consumer and worker safety. There is no such thing as just increasing line speeds in the inspection area of a plant and not impacting the line speeds in the entire plant. FSIS was clear in acknowledging this when it proposed changing the way poultry would be inspected.

    A line speed increase not only increases how many birds per minute are slaughtered and inspected, it results in more birds being processed per minute throughout the plant. And when it comes to worker safety, there is no doubt that the faster the line speeds the greater the risk of harm to workers. Let’s look back at the original rulemaking process.

    In August of 2014, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) promulgated the final rule for the Modernization of the Poultry Slaughter Inspection System. The final rule, which created the New Poultry Inspections System (NPIS), went through almost two-and-a-half years of public notice and comment, during with the USDA received more than 250,000 public comments. According to FSIS, the issue they received the most comments on was the potential negative effect that increased line speeds might have on the health and safety of workers in poultry slaughter establishments.

    The final poultry inspection rule promulgated by the FSIS did not contain a line speed increase. In fact, as part of the rulemaking, the agency flatly rejected any line speed increase in poultry plants. Instead, the FSIS decided to maintain the existing maximum line speed of 140 birds per minute. In making this decision, it should be clear that the USDA considered extensive comments on all sides: the poultry industry, worker advocates, consumer safety experts, and other affected stakeholders. In reaching this conclusion, the government specifically explained that maintaining the maximum line speed of 140 birds per minute would allow the agency to assess the impact of the various changes and new technologies adopted by establishments under the NPIS.

    Most important to this debate, FSIS also specifically concluded  that they would  not reconsider this decision on  maximum line speed rates until the NPIS  had  been fully implemented on a wide scale and the agency had gained a least a year of experience under the new system. According to FSIS, poultry plants are slowly opting into the new system, and as of yet there has not been wide scale implementation.

    In its initial proposal, USDA clearly stated that any increase in the maximum line speed would not only affect the inspection process, but would result in more birds being processed per minute. That’s right, more birds being processed per minute. The USDA was clear that if current inspection line speeds were increased, workers in poultry plants would be processing more birds per minute.

    It was clear that the speed governing inspection of newly slaughtered birds in poultry plants also affects the speed at which workers in both the slaughter and processing sides of the plants would be working.

    The petition by the National Chicken Council requests that chicken plants be able to run their lines as fast as they would like. They are advocating for no line speed limits at all. This request is made despite the fact that even in the 20 chicken plants that are in an old pilot program (HIMP) that allows chicken plant line speeds up to 175 birds per minute, the average line speed is 131 birds per minute, well below the currently allowed 140 birds per minute.

    There are many additional arguments beyond endangering workers and consumers on why the USDA must reject the NCC’s petition—including that it would undermine the rulemaking process, violate the Administrative Procedures Act, and would be inconsistent with the Department’s wavier regulations. But it’s important not to obfuscate the issue.

    The author is a Senior Fellow at the non-partisan, not-for-profit National Employment Law Project. She previously served as the Chief of Staff and then Senior Policy Advisor at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

    Deborah Berkowitz
    Senior Fellow, National Employment Law Project
    Previously Chief of Staff and Senior Policy Advisor, at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration

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