Chicken Safety: Factory Workers Already Slaughter 140 Per Minute—New Law Could Make This Dangerously Faster

The repetitive action of deboning chicken puts workers at risk for injury. Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Americans eat a whole lot of chicken—about 8 billion each year. In an effort to meet this demand, poultry farmers and some Republican lawmakers are hoping to do away with current regulations that limit the number of chickens workers can legally chop up in a minute. While the result may be good for the chicken farmers, advocates for factory workers say the change would be dangerous for people on the assembly lines doing the butchering.

Currently, a U.S. Department of Agriculture rule states that poultry plant workers can handle 140 birds per minute. On September 1, the National Chicken Council asked that this rule be removed and that the USDA allow plants to operate at any line speed "at which they can maintain process control," the NCC wrote. Ending the birds-per-minute limit would make the slaughter process to go far more quickly, allowing poultry farmers to produce and sell more meat, NBC News reported.

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Those in support of doing away with a line limit call the current 140-birds-per-minute rule outdated. They argue that current advanced meat-testing technology means that assembly line workers do not need to physically handle each body to diagnose disease. Rather, the technology can detect bacterial and viral contamination easily and quickly.

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However, others say food safety is not the only risk here. Increasing the speed could put workers at risk for serious injury. A letter from Anthony "Marc" Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, to the NCC notes that poultry workers, who must debone chickens as quickly as possible, are already at twice the risk of being injured on the job as other workers. The job is tedious and at times dangerous, with workers using sharp tools to separate meat from bone. These repetitive actions over extended periods of time can cause serious musculoskeletal disorders and injuries.

As Democratic Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut explained in a piece she wrote for The Hill, the poultry industry is dangerous enough without increased line speed. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has openly stated that doing away with this rule and allowing lines to work at any speed could result in more injuries among the workers doing the deboning.

"USDA wanted to raise the maximum line speed, but OSHA was very concerned that it would result in more workers being injured," said David Michaels, Obama's former head of OSHA, NBC reported. "We had support [from White House officials] who agreed that we didn't want thousands of workers to have their arms destroyed by having to cut up chickens at 175 birds per minute."

The Southern Poverty Law Center backs this claim. In a recent letter to the USDA, the SPLC said doing away with speed limits would "increase injuries to workers" and accused the department of "placing private profit over the health and safety of workers."

This petition is not the first time that lawmakers and farmers have pushed to erase the line limit, although the last request was ruled against by the Obama administration. However, with the Trump administration hoping to reach its goal of "reducing regulatory burden in industry," there is no knowing how the fight will end this time around.