Beef consumption in the U.S is on the decline. The red meat that once played a central role in the American diet is disappearing off of consumers’ plates by the rate of about 20 pounds of beef per person, per year. Increased awareness of obesity and other weight-related diseases linked to red meat, and a public health push to persuade Americans to choose leaner options are likely some of the causes of this drop in demand. As beef consumption has decreased, poultry has steadily risen to become the most popular meat product in the U.S., and the poultry industry isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.
Earlier this month, the National Chicken Council (NCC) submitted a petition to the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)–the food safety regulatory arm of USDA–requesting a lift on a 2014 Obama Administration rule that limits processing speeds to 140 birds per minute. In their petition, the NCC requests that FSIS initiate a waiver program allowing chicken slaughter establishments “to operate without the arbitrary line speed limitations.” This means processing speeds would likely increase to at least 175 birds per minute. The NCC argues that limiting processing rates is putting the U.S. chicken industry at a competitive disadvantage, as some countries are able to process over 200 birds per minute.
Despite their argument, it’s hard to feel sorry for the NCC when the U.S. is currently the world’s top producer of poultry meat. In fact, this year consumers are expected to consume a record amount of chicken, about 91.3 pounds per person. Not only is poultry production dominating nationally, but according to the USDA, the U.S. is also the second largest exporter of poultry meat in the world.
Since the NCC’s petition became public, animal rights groups, workers unions, and consumer advocacy groups (including NCL) have spoken up about the increased safety risks associated with faster processing. Removing speed line limits makes birds susceptible to harsher slaughtering conditions, including violent removal of limbs, drowning, scalding, and other egregious abuse. On top of inhumane slaughtering practices, the poultry industry is notorious for the poor treatment of their workers. Without processing rules, poultry workers are even more vulnerable. According to the director of Oxfam America’s U.S. Domestic Program, Minor Sinclair, “Bumping up the poultry processing line speed to 175 birds per minute – or striking 3 birds per second – will only invite more worker amputations, hospitalizations, and injuries – not to mention increasing the risk of meat contamination.”
The National Consumers League advocates for the health and safety of workers and consumers. We stand with the other consumer and worker rights organizations objecting a lift on speed line limits. The health and safety of workers and consumers is far more important than any potential economic gain for the poultry industry. Consumers should remain informed about the changes happening in food processing, and speak out against policies that put workers and public health at risk. There is already so much progress to be made in the poultry industry. If NCC’s petition is accepted, it will become even more difficult for the poultry industry to meet the needs of workers and consumers whose best interest they claim to serve.