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Food safety, worker health threatened by chicken industry’s move to increase line speeds

Chicken RawIn the early 1980s, I saw an item in a consumer newsletter that the chicken industry wanted to speed up how fast the chickens moved past the workers in the plant on the way to becoming what consumers buy in the grocery stores and serve on their plates.

Since I wrote a consumer food column for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, I thought I’d go out to a small slaughter house in the Spokane Valley and see what I could learn about meat production and meat inspection.

I asked to visit the plant and wrote a column about how the meat industry wanted to speed up the lines and what I’d observed at the plant, including that one of the workers spit on the floor as he was working.

My editors spiked the column. I had to quickly write simple replacement column.

However, my editors said I could do a more in-depth article on meat inspection and visit the Washington Beef plant in Toppenish, Washington. I worked on the article for months, going on a tour of the plant and interviewing meat inspectors, USDA and health officials, meat companies, and consumer groups. I also ordered meat inspection reports under the Freedom of Information Act.

I learned about the Reagan administration’s new program called total quality control. Employees in the plant took over meat inspection from the USDA inspector. It, along with speeding up the meat and poultry processing lines, were ways to cut the cost of the nation’s meat inspection program.

But, in the end, the article was never published. My editors rejected it and I received a “kill fee.” I think the topic of unhealthy meat was too controversial for them. In addition, they may not have wanted to offend the beef industry, especially Washington Beef.

I still have the article. I’ll publish it on my blog soon.

I’m writing about this again because the National Chicken Council wants poultry producers will be able to slaughter and process chickens with no limit on line speeds.

This proposal will compromise food safety, said the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The center has urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reject a petition filed by the poultry industry lobbying group on line speeds. The center also opposes the faster line speeds as part of a coalition of food safety organizations.

Slaughterhouse lines already move at a fast pace – up to 140 birds per minute in most chicken facilities, a speed set to allow federal inspectors adequate time to assess chicken carcasses for fecal contamination and other problems such as tumors under traditional inspection procedures. A few facilities that participated in a USDA pilot program testing newer inspection procedures may operate at up to 175 birds per minute.

The National Chicken Council petition says that those line-speed caps are “arbitrary.” It asks the USDA to carry out a waiver system that would let chicken slaughter facilities operate indefinitely at “any line speed at which they can maintain process control,” arguing that lifting the caps would further President Donald Trump’s deregulatory agenda.

This would mean that a single federal inspector could be asked to observe more than 200 chicken carcasses per minute – or three carcasses per second. Those speeds have never been tested under any USDA inspection program, the center said. 

“We question whether a third of a second is adequate time for an inspector to see much of anything, let alone evidence of fecal contamination on a chicken carcass,” said Sarah Sorscher, the center’s deputy director of regulatory affairs. “The faster line speeds have the potential to increase fatigue and injury on the part of workers and raise the probability of a human error that compromises food safety.”

Faster line speeds will also reduce the percentage of carcasses assessed more thoroughly for fecal contamination through off-line inspections, according the center. Under the New Poultry Inspection System, inspectors conduct eight 10-bird carcass checks from each line, regardless of line speed.

Other disturbing information was revealed about chicken plants last year.

In Oklahoma, addicts and men convicted of crimes are sent to a program called the Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery from drug court. Instead of treatment, the men work long hours for no pay in chicken plants run mostly Simmons Foods Inc., an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found. Simmons slaughters and processes chickens for some of America’s largest retailers and restaurants, including Walmart, KFC, and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. They also make pet food for PetSmart and Rachael Ray’s Nutrish brand.

Conditions in the plants are brutal, Reveal reporters said, adding injured workers aren’t properly treated and, if CAAIR applies for workman’s compensation, it keeps the money rather than giving it to workers.


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