The National Chicken Council recently petitioned FSIS to lift line speed cap; environmental group opposes such an action.
WASHINGTON – An environmental group is opposing a poultry industry petition to lift a cap on line speeds at poultry processing companies.

The National Chicken Council recently requested the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the US Dept. of Agriculture implement a waiver system to permit chicken processors participating in the New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS) to operate without the line speed caps imposed by the NPIS. Under the proposed waiver program:

  • An eligible establishment would have to participate in both NPIS and SIP;
  • The establishment would develop a process for monitoring and ensuring it is maintaining process control at its chosen line speed, along with corrective actions to regain process control if lost; and
  • The Agency would waive the line speed limitation in 9 C.F.R. § 381.69(a) and instead allow participating establishments to operate at any line speed at which they can maintain process control.

“This waiver program will encourage more establishments to opt into NPIS, will not compromise food safety, and will promote and enhance Agency and industry efficiency,” NCC said in its petition. NCC said current regulations have imposed costs on the poultry industry while creating competitive disparities.

But Food & Water Watch, which challenged the legality of the NPIS, said the cap on poultry processing line speeds was a positive of the rule.

“We were concerned about the food safety implications of implementing NPIS and we also believed that USDA did not take into consideration worker safety and animal welfare concerns when making this dramatic change to poultry inspection,” Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, said in a statement. “The only positive in that final rule was the cap on the line speeds in chicken plants to 140 birds per minute (bpm) instead of increasing them to 175 bpm, as USDA had originally proposed. But even at 140 bpm, a lone USDA inspector is checking 2.33 birds every second under NPIS as opposed to the one bird every two seconds under the traditional inspection system.”

The group said NCC’s petition “…comes in the midst of ongoing confusion about the industry’s performance on reducing Salmonella.”

“While the National Chicken Council petition claims that food safety in the pilot plants was just as good or even better than in plants that had operated with the full complement of USDA inspectors, since the NPIS rule was implemented in 2014 Food & Water Watch discovered that the agency’s Salmonella testing program prior to July 2016 was flawed for all poultry plants, and it had to change its protocols.”

The NPIS mandates poultry companies to meet new requirements to prevent Salmonella and Campylobacter contamination, rather than addressing contamination after it occurs. Additionally, all poultry facilities must perform their own microbiological testing at two points in their production process to show that Salmonella and Campylobacter is under control. These requirements are in addition to testing by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). An optional NPIS enables poultry companies to sort their own products for defects before presenting it to FSIS for inspection. USDA said the system will allow FSIS inspectors to more frequently remove birds from the evisceration line for close examinations, take samples for testing, check plant sanitation, verify compliance with food safety plans and observe live birds for signs of disease or mishandling.

NCC has argued in its petition that increasing line speeds will not compromise food safety. According to the petition, FSIS recognized in the final rule implementing NPIS that “data from the HIMP pilot demonstrate that establishments operating under HIMP are able to maintain process control at line speeds of up to 175 bpm.” Specifically, these data demonstrate that plants operating at line speeds authorized under HIMP were “capable of consistently producing safe, wholesome, and unadulterated product, and that they consistently met pathogen reduction and other performance standards.”

NCC added that processors would still be required to maintain process control at whatever line speed they choose, and — as a condition to receiving a waiver — processors would be expected to develop a process for monitoring and restoring process control if lost.

“Such programs would be establishment-specific and might include testing and statistical monitoring tools and gradual decreases or increases to line speed because of those steps,” according to the petition.