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Faster Poultry Line Speeds May Compromise Food Safety, Watchdog Groups Say

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If the National Chicken Council gets its way, poultry producers will be able to slaughter and process chickens with no limit on line speeds—a prospect that the Center for Science in the Public Interest says may compromise food safety.

In comments filed today with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, CSPI urged the agency to reject a petition filed by the poultry industry lobbying group.  CSPI also signed comments in opposition to the faster line speeds as part of a coalition of food safety organizations.

Slaughterhouse lines already move at a brisk 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 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 implement 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 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. 

“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 CSPI deputy director of regulatory affairs Sarah Sorscher.  “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 to CSPI’s comments.  Under the New Poultry Inspection System, inspectors conduct eight 10-bird carcass checks from each line, regardless of line speed. 

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Contact Jeff Cronin (jcronin[at]cspinet.org) or Ariana Stone (astone[at]cspinet.org).