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SPLC urges US Department of Agriculture to reject poultry industry's request for faster line speeds

Eliminating line speed limits at poultry plants would increase injuries to workers and violate federal law and regulations, the SPLC said today in a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The letter is in response to the National Chicken Council’s (NCC’s) petition to the USDA, which seeks to waive all poultry line speed limits.

“Eliminating poultry line speed limits would continue to hurt workers and line the industry’s pockets—only faster,” said SPLC staff attorney Sarah Rich, who wrote the letter to Carmen Rottenberg, acting deputy undersecretary of food safety at the USDA. “The industry is placing private profit over the health and safety of workers.”

In addition to creating bad policy, approving the NCC’s petition would violate the law—both the USDA’s existing regulations and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), which is designed to keep federal agencies transparent and accountable to the public, Rich says in the letter.

Currently, the maximum speed allowed by the USDA for chicken plant lines is a whopping 140 birds per minute (bpm). The industry is urging the USDA to eliminate line speed limits—which it calls “arbitrary”—altogether.

The SPLC has a longstanding relationship with poultry workers around the Southeast. Hundreds of interviews with these workers culminated in the 2013 report Unsafe at These Speeds. In the report, the SPLC details how conditions in poultry plants lead systematically and unforgivingly to serious injuries and illnesses, including carpal tunnel syndrome, nerve damage and musculoskeletal disorders. Workers are forced to inspect and cut carcasses flying by at speeds of more than two per second.

Workers stand for hours in front of a rapid, relentless flow of chickens—cutting, slicing, twisting, cooking, freezing, and packaging. All the while, they are exposed to heat, cold, chemicals and noise.

The SPLC, in partnership with a coalition of civil rights groups, submitted comments a few years ago when the USDA was considering a rule change to increase line speeds to 175 bpm.

“Between 2014—when that proposed increase was rejected—and now, nothing has changed but a renewed urgency from the NCC and the poultry industry to increase their profits,” Rich said.

In the letter, Rich says that workers who are permanently disabled by the debilitating work on the line are forced to seek disability and other public benefits to cover their cost of living.

“Allowing the poultry industry to run their lines at these speeds, and to keep workers performing the same repetitive tasks day in and day out, is a de facto subsidy of this very profitable industry, paid for by taxpayers and, ultimately, by the injured workers themselves.”

By agreeing to the NCC’s request, Rich says, the USDA would violate its own regulations and the APA. The USDA waiver process only allows new regulations “for limited periods” and for “a public health emergency or to permit experimentation.” Those requirements have not been met.

Further, she says, if the USDA agrees to the NCC’s waiver request, it would bypass a public “notice and comment” period, also violating the APA and inviting a lawsuit.

The letter concludes by saying: the “USDA must not bend and break the rules to benefit already profitable corporations at the expense of the well-being and safety of workers and consumers.”