Today it was announced that the USDA decided to reject the petition from the National Chicken Council (NCC) to eliminate line speed limits at poultry plants.
Among the challenges that workers face inside poultry plants in the US, the speed of the processing line stands out. The maximum speed has doubled since 1979 (from 70 birds per minute to 140 today), and now poses myriad dangers to workers and consumers. As hundreds of birds roll down the processing line, workers need to execute hundreds of thousands of motions per shift, which often results in injuries and illnesses. At the same time, it’s increasingly difficult to execute effective inspections of the birds.
When the NCC petitioned the US Department of Agriculture, once again, to lift the cap on line speed altogether (whereas the previous attempt had been an increase to 175 bpm), the poultry worker coalition sprang into action and organized consumers, advocates, workers, and experts to oppose the move. Of the more than 100,000 comments on the petition, all but a scant handful opposed the request.
Thousands of UFCW members who work in poultry plants sent comments to the USDA about the dangers of this petition. The UFCW also sent letters in October and December of 2017 to the USDA that highlighted how risky the NCC petition to eliminate line speeds would be for both workers and consumers. There are more than 250,000 poultry workers in America and 70,000 of them are members of the UFCW union family.
Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union released the following statement:
“This decision is a victory for hard-working poultry workers who hold one of the most dangerous and difficult jobs in America, and the consumers who depend upon them to provide chicken that is safe to eat. However, we remain concerned that poultry companies can request line speed waivers for individual plants.
“In addition to putting poultry workers at greater risk of injury, eliminating line speeds puts consumers at risk by making it more difficult for both federal inspectors and quality control workers to properly check birds for contamination.
“It was unbelievable to see major poultry industry groups ignore these well-known risks and lobby the USDA to eliminate line speeds.”
Last year, Oxfam a global anti-poverty and social justice organization released a blistering report highlighting the horrible treatment of poultry processing plant workers.
“…poultry industry workers are “routinely denied breaks to use the bathroom” in order to optimize the speed of production. In some cases, according to the group, the reality is so oppressive that workers “urinate and defecate while standing on the line” and “wear diapers to work.” In others, employees say they avoid drinking liquids for long periods and endure considerable pain in order to keep their jobs,” wrote the Washington Post.
Oxfam praised the news that the USDA rejected the request to speed up the processing line.
“While we welcome this victory for the workers across the country, we also sound a note of caution about the potential for individual plants to ask to raise the speed in their operations,” says Minor Sinclair, director of Oxfam’s US Domestic Program. “Workers report that they’re already working at breakneck speed – slicing and cutting 40 or 50 birds per minute. They’re exhausted and hurting, and they worry about the problems they see in the food supply.”