Faster, but how much faster? Pushing production to maximum efficiency while maintaining food safety and worker safety begs that question. When it comes to answering it, not surprisingly, there is a difference of opinion.

That opinion can be vocal when the discourse involves processors, employee groups, government agencies and lawmakers. In 2018, and likely into this year, the controversy about pushing the limits of line speed became a hot topic after the US Dept. of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced it would consider waiver requests from processors to exceed the 140-bird-per-minute limit on evisceration lines.

Not long after FSIS opened the request line, queries from processors Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., Gerber Poultry, Peco Foods and Ozark Mountain Poultry spurred some backlash from a dozen advocacy groups such as Consumer Federation of America, Center for Progressive Reform and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, among others. They argued that the request wasn’t based on lessons from a public health emergency, new procedures or new operational equipment and that worker safety would be jeopardized at faster rates.

FSIS added more criteria in September, noting that birds should be slaughtered in accordance with Good Commercial Practices (GCPs) in order for a waiver to be granted.

The need for speed

Processors and the poultry industry have countered the claims, noting that at least 25 plants already operate at the faster speeds, including the nation’s highest-volume processors, Tyson Foods Inc. and Pilgrim’s Pride.

The National Chicken Council (NCC), after earlier petitioning USDA to remove limits altogether, maintains that a pace of 175-birds-per-minute helps processors keep up with global competition without substantially increasing safety risks. Tom Super, senior vice president of communications for NCC, underscores the point that higher line speeds aren’t unheard of in the industry: “Almost two dozen chicken plants have been operating safely at 175 birds per minute for 20 years under a program initiated by the Clinton administration. This pilot program has proven that plants that operate under the new, modernized inspection system can do so safely and effectively.”

Once a plant has been in the New Poultry Inspection System for a year; the plant must meet dozens of pages of strict criteria from FSIS in order to be considered for an increased line speed. — Tom Super, senior vice president of communications for NCC

Super also emphasizes the stringent practices that processors must follow when raising speeds. “Once a plant has been in the New Poultry Inspection System for a year, the plant must meet dozens of pages of strict criteria from FSIS in order to be considered for an increased line speed,” he explains. NCC, for its part, helps members meet such strict criteria.

Another point made by advocates of higher speeds is that improved technologies and practices are now in place to ensure food safety, quality and employee safety, including automated evisceration processes that lower the risk of employee injuries. “The main point of the modernized system is to increase food safety by reallocating precious FSIS resources to more food-safety related inspection tasks,” Super says. He cites FSIS’s recent testing results showing a decreased prevalence of Salmonella on whole broiler carcasses and chicken parts.

At the same time, the poultry industry has a demonstrable safety track record for workers and processors. According to the 2017 Injury and Illness Report released by the US Dept. of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the incidence of occupational injuries and illnesses within the poultry sector’s slaughter and processing workforce has fallen by 83 percent over the last 20 years and continues to decline. Moreover, decreases in injuries and reductions compared to injuries in similar agriculture industries have occurred as line speeds have ramped up in recent years, according to Super.

Brake time?

Lawmakers, for their part, have chimed in on the issue. When NCC was asking the USDA to eradicate the line speed limits, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) penned a letter to US Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue urging the agency against line speed increases, calling out the number of injuries and vulnerabilities to workers and to food safety. Rep. Doug Collins, (R-Ga.) wrote in defense of the nation’s poultry processors seeking to stay profitable and competitive on the world stage, pointing out that line speed increases take place on the inspection phase, not in second processing and are hence less likely to result in problems to workers on the line.

There is some precedent in the overall industry for higher speeds. Over on the red meat side, the USDA last year proposed a rule to lift line speed caps in pork facilities. A pilot program in select pork processing plants has shown that allowing greater line speeds hasn’t been a hindrance.

The North American Meat Institute (NAMI) affirms the benefits of high-speed pork processing. “The proposed New Swine Slaughter Inspection System has been in place as a pilot project in five pork processing plants for 15 years, and it has proven to be an effective inspection program. Those five pilot plants have produced millions of pounds of safe pork and USDA has thoroughly evaluated the systems, including line speeds during that time,” says Eric Mittenthal, vice president of public affairs.

According to NAMI, food safety and worker safety, along with animal welfare standards, are not different in the pilot pork plants than in traditional plants. At the same time, the organization notes that FSIS inspectors have the “ultimate say” on the most appropriate speed for safety assurance.

As 2019 begins, line speeds will likely remain an issue, from poultry plants to the Beltway. And innovations in efficiencies continue: at the upcoming International Production and Processing Expo (IPPE) in Georgia, improved productivity and faster line speeds will be on display and educational programs will include sessions on employee safety and regulatory compliance.