Chicken council's petition rejected; U.S. denies plan on speed waivers

Posted: January 31, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has rejected a request for a waiver that would make it easier for chicken processing plants to operate with increased line speeds.

In a letter Monday, Carmen Rottenberg, USDA acting deputy undersecretary, wrote to the National Chicken Council's president, Michael Brown, about the agency's resolution.

After considering USDA waiver procedures and a lack of data from the National Chicken Council to support a claim that inspection quality would not be diminished by faster line speeds at certain facilities, "we have decided to deny your petition," its letter said. The agency also denied the request that would allow broiler processing plants to operate without line-speed limits.

The letter suggested that the National Chicken Council's petition clashed with current USDA waiver procedures. Soon, however, the food inspection agency said, it would issue waivers to a limited number of plants that have met requirements to operate without the standard line-speed cap.

Rottenberg said in the letter that the 20 plants that operate at line speeds up to 175 birds per minute, or 25 percent swifter than the standard limit, have been functioning that way since 2007. Rottenberg also said the USDA will consider waivers for plants eligible for consideration to operate at the faster line speed.

The chicken council's petition requested a waiver system that allowed easier eligibility for "young chicken slaughter establishments," which in years past the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service has not recorded enough evidence to show these plants can handle going faster than the standard cap.

In September, the National Chicken Council sent a request for a separate waiver system that would allow chicken plants to operate faster than the standard line-speed cap of 140 birds per minute. The council argued in the petition that increasing line speeds would give U.S. chicken plants a competitive edge over countries that don't have an "arbitrary" speed cap.

The USDA got more than 100,000 comments on the chicken council's petition. Most of them were negative.

Oxfam, an organization that supports poultry workers, agreed with most of the USDA's decision that granted more restriction to poultry plants.

"While we welcome this victory for the workers across the country, we also sound a note of caution about the potential for individual plants to ask to raise the speed in their operations," said Minor Sinclair, director of Oxfam's U.S. program, in a statement Tuesday. "Workers report that they're already working at breakneck speed -- slicing and cutting 40 or 50 birds per minute."

After learning of the USDA's decision, Brown, of the National Chicken Council, remained hopeful that some chicken plants operating under the USDA's new poultry inspection system will be able to soon petition for increased line speeds through current agency procedures "if they maintain a record of process control." Then the cap would be 175 birds per minute.

The USDA also said in Monday's letter that it would make available criteria for broiler chicken establishments that have been operating under the new system more than a year.

After looking at the processing control history of some slaughterhouses "[the USDA] expects to grant a limited number of additional waivers" to operate at speeds up to 175 birds per minute, the letter said. Specifics on how many and which ones were not disclosed.

"That was the original intent of the petition and we look forward to working with the agency and our members on the soon to be released criteria to apply for such a request," Brown said in an email Tuesday.

"While we are disappointed about the denial of the petition, [the National Chicken Council] is encouraged that there will be a viable path forward in the near future."

Business on 01/31/2018