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Chicken Lobby Urges Trump Admin to Undo Safety Measures for Poultry Workers

Here's how speeding up inspection lines might compromise labor conditions—and the safety of your chicken.

by Mayukh Sen
Oct 17 2017, 4:00pm

Photo via Flickr user United Soybean Board

It's long been the standard in most American poultry slaughterhouses for workers to inspect 140 birds per minute, or bpm (yes, that's a unit of measurement). These inspection lines abide by Obama-era regulations that were tightened in July 2014, when the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)'s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) decided to reject bids to increase the limit in plants to 175 bpm.

That directive now stands a good chance of collapsing beneath the Trump administration, thanks to a petition filed to the FSIS on behalf of the the National Chicken Council (NCC), a chicken factory farm trade group, early last month. The NCC is encouraging the FSIS to get rid of this 140 bpm cap, which the NCC dismisses as "arbitrary," and instead saying that plants themselves should determine what these limits are. The NCC's ask has curried some favor within pockets of the Republican Party, particularly from Georgia's Representative Doug Collins, who came out in vocal support of the petition last month by claiming it'll maximize productivity within poultry plants without compromising the safety of workers and the food they're handling.

The group's justification for dissolving this cap is that it prevents the United States from competing on a global platform with other countries like Belgium, Brazil, and Germany, whose rates soar as high as 200 bpm. As a result, in NCC's eyes, the United States' poultry industry risks lagging behind its counterparts across the globe if it continues to operate as sluggishly. "These cost saving actions are consistent with the regulatory reform initiatives recently put in place by the President, and waivers are consistent with the Administration's emphasis on reducing regulatory burdens on the industry," the petition reads.

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It's all in the name of efficiency, or so the NCC claims. The push has summoned the ire of multiple animal rights groups along with worker safety organizations. A report from Suzy Khimm of NBC News, published yesterday morning, synthesizes the many problems with such a directive: For one, the poultry industry leans on the labor the marginalized, primarily those of immigrants and refugees, and eliminating any limit altogether further exposes vulnerable demographics to unsafe conditions.

"We are deeply concerned that any line speed increase would jeopardize the health and safety of both poultry workers and consumers at large," Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of the Food & Water Watch (FWW), wrote in a letter last month responding to the NCC's petition. FWW was joined last Friday by the Southern Poverty Law Center. In a letter sent to the USDA last week, Staff Attorney Sarah Rich lambasted the waiver effort as a ploy to "place private profit over the health and safety of workers," endangering them further in an already precarious line of work.

READ MORE: Are America's Top Chicken Processors Acting as a Cartel?

The current administration hasn't moved on the petition yet, but the NCC's push stands a good chance of being honored in spite of the resistance it's encountered. Carmen Rottenberg, the USDA's Deputy Administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (and the addressee of the NCC petition), expressed sympathy with the NCC's position in an interview with NBC. She claimed that there's nothing wrong with imposing a 175 bpm limit, which, as 2011 USDA tests had shown, didn't jeopardize the safety of chicken. Yet she's citing a report that, as Khimm points out, gathered insufficient evidence to support such a conclusion.