Citing President Donald Trump's calls for deregulation, Republican lawmakers and the chicken industry are aggressively lobbying to speed up poultry inspection lines — a change the Obama administration had rejected after warnings it would endanger workers and increase food contamination.
The National Chicken Council has asked the USDA to allow poultry plants participating in a new inspection system to operate "at any line speed" they can safely handle, freeing them from the 140 birds-per-minute limit that the Obama administration had established for most plants.
The Obama-era cap is an "arbitrary" limit that is holding back the industry's ability to compete in the global marketplace, the National Chicken Council stated in its petition.
Granting waivers would help the Trump administration achieve its goals of "reducing regulatory burdens on the industry," the council said, adding that it would help poultry plants cut costs and expand production to meet rising demand.
But worker safety advocates fear that revving up line speed will harm plant employees, many of whom are immigrants and refugees already operating under dangerous conditions. Eviscerating animal carcasses requires workers to use sharp tools to make forceful, repetitive motions at high speeds and exposes them to toxic chemicals used to kill bacteria.
"There's no data to support that this would be safe. And even at existing line speeds, it's extremely unsafe," said Debbie Berkowitz, a senior fellow at the National Employment Law Project, a research and advocacy group in Washington.
Poultry workers are almost twice as likely to suffer from serious injuries as workers in private industry, and more than six times as likely to have a work-related illness. Two poultry and meat processing plants, Tyson Foods and JBS/Pilgrim's Pride, are among the 10 companies with the highest number of work-related amputations and hospitalizations, out of more than 14,000 companies reporting to the federal government, Berkowitz, a former Obama Labor Department official, discovered.