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Trump team makes controversial change to allow chicken plants to operate at faster speeds

Chickens gather around a feeder at a farm in Osage, Iowa in 2014. (Scott Olson/Getty Images). (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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The Trump administration is now allowing more chicken-processing plants to operate at faster speeds, a controversial move that some fear will hurt workers and chicken consumers by lowering safety standards.

Plants that receive a waiver from the Trump administration will be able to process up to 175 birds per minute, up from the old limit of 140 birds per minute. The administration recently published new criteria spelling out what it would take to get a waiver.

The National Chicken Council, which represents the poultry industry, praised the move and noted that each individual plant must meet stringent criteria to obtain a waiver. But labor, consumer and animal rights groups decried the change as a capitulation to big business that will open the floodgates to most of the nation’s more than 200 poultry-processing plants operating at the faster rate.

The move comes on the heels of the Trump administration’s push to eliminate speed limits entirely in the pork-processing industry and at a time when the United States has an abundance of chicken in grocery stores and warehouses. Foreign buyers, especially China and Mexico, have slowed U.S. meat purchases as Trump’s trade war escalates. The result is that chicken sitting in cold-storage warehouses is at its highest level since 2006, and domestic prices of boneless chicken breasts have slumped in recent months, according to U.S. Agriculture Department data.

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Trump’s USDA published the new guidelines on Sept. 28, the day after the widely watched Senate testimony of then-Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who accused him of sexually assaulting her when they were both in high school.

A spokesman for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) said that the timing was entirely coincidental and that the final criteria came out the day the agency held its monthly Safe Food Coalition meeting. But consumer and labor rights activists believe it was part of an effort to quietly push through the contentious new rule.

“The Trump administration doesn’t care that this change will exploit workers and harm public health and animal welfare. This is all about increasing profits for the poultry industry,” said Deborah Berkowitz, a director at the National Employment Law Project and former senior policy adviser for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the Obama administration.

Labor Department data shows that injury rates for poultry workers are 60 percent higher than the national average for all private industry, and illness rates are more than five times as high. John Howard, the longtime director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, has said that faster line speeds play a role in injuries.

The National Chicken Council says that pilot programs at faster speeds have worked fine and that other countries allow processing above 140 birds per minute, meaning the United States is losing ground to global competition if it doesn’t do this.

“The safety of our food and our employees are our top priorities, and we would never advocate for any policy that would negatively affect either. The safety record of plants operating at 175bpm [birds per minute], both in the U.S. and in dozens of countries all over the world, has been proven time and again,” said Thomas Super, a National Chicken Council spokesman.

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To get a waiver, a chicken plant has to have the latest safety measures in place, including checking properly for salmonella, and a good track record for a minimum of 120 days. The plant must also operate under “good commercial practices,” meaning chickens are slaughtered in a way that stops their breathing before they are scalded.

Twenty plants already had the right to operate at faster speeds because they were part of a pilot program. FSIS approved five more plants to operate at the high rate shortly after the Sept. 28 notice. The two largest chicken producers in the United States, Tyson Foods and Pilgrim’s Pride, which control nearly half the market, already have several waivers each.

A USDA spokesman said the agency has “taken unprecedented steps to increase transparency to the public” by outlining what it takes to get a waiver.

In September 2017, the National Chicken Council asked FSIS to eliminate the speed limit entirely for companies that are in compliance with safety standards.

When the USDA asked for comment about ditching the limit, more than 100,000 responses poured in, including several thousand from poultry workers begging the government not to do this. Protesters appeared outside the USDA building in diapers, saying the chicken-processing lines are already moving so quickly that workers don’t have time for bathroom breaks.

In January, the USDA said that it would keep a speed limit in place but that it planned to set up a waiver process that would be accessible to all companies, not just those that were part of the pilot program. Activists thought there would be a proposed rule followed by another comment period, but the USDA published initial criteria in February in a department newsletter and then published the final rules Sept. 28.

The typical pay for a poultry-processing worker is about $25,000 a year, according to the Labor Department, and many reports have shown that the chicken industry is increasingly using immigrants and refugee labor in its plants.

The Obama administration decided to cap the line speed at 140 birds per minute after extensive research and consultation, Berkowitz said. The industry counters that injury rates have fallen substantially in the past two decades and that safety improvements are ongoing.

The USDA said safety is of top importance, but the job of overseeing working conditions falls to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is part of the Labor Department.

“While FSIS agrees that working conditions in poultry slaughter establishments is an important issue, the agency has neither the authority nor the expertise to regulate issues related to establishment worker safety,” the USDA said in the Federal Register notice.

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