WASHINGTON — The Trump administration now is allowing more chicken processing plants to operate at faster speeds, a move that some in the industry are cheering but others fear will hurt workers and chicken consumers by lowering safety standards.
The administration recently published new criteria for chicken plants applying for waivers to existing limits on how fast processing can go. Plants that receive a waiver will be able to process up to 175 birds per minute — up from the old limit of 140 birds per minute.
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 and animal rights group decried the change as a capitulation to big business that will open the floodgates to most of the nation’s 205 poultry processing plants operating at the faster rate.
The move comes on the heels of the 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 the current 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. Department of Agriculture data.
The USDA published the new guidelines on Sept. 28.
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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 pilot programs at faster speeds have worked fine and that other countries allow processing above 140 birds a 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.