Animal welfare advocates are joining worker rights and food safety groups in opposition to a poultry industry proposal to speed up portions of processing lines at chicken plants.
The National Chicken Council, an industry trade group, requested in September that the U.S. Department of Agriculture scrap limits on the speed of evisceration lines, where bird organs are removed. The waiver would apply to poultry plants that take part in a new inspection program meant to cut down on food safety risks and also demonstrate they can maintain control at their chosen speed. Right now, most processing line speeds are capped at 140 birds per minute.
“Even at current speeds, hundreds of thousands of chickens are boiled alive every year because the workers can’t keep up with the machinery to properly stun or euthanize them,” Deborah Press, director of regulatory affairs and government relations for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, told HuffPost in an email.
Opponents say speeding up the lines will force already-frenzied workers to rush even more, making it harder to handle the birds with care.
Rough or careless handling can mean more pain for the birds. It can also mean chickens don’t get shackled properly, which may lead to them being inadequately stunned ― therefore still conscious ― when their throats are slit. Even worse, improper shackling can mean the birds’ throats don’t get properly cut at all, meaning they die by drowning in the hot water-filled scalding tank meant to remove feathers.
Tom Super, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, said activists’ concerns are misplaced. A pilot program allowing 20 poultry plants to operate at faster line speeds for 20 years shows they have been “on par or better” in worker safety, food safety and animal welfare, he told HuffPost. He emphasized that speeding up the evisceration lines would have no impact on the speeds of the shackling or slaughter parts of the process.
“These criticisms represent a gross misunderstanding of how a poultry plant operates,” Super said.
But there’s someone with a very good understanding of how a poultry plant operates who disagrees with Super. Stan Painter is a consumer safety inspector for the USDA who has worked in the meat processing industry in some capacity since the 1980s. He’s also a leader in a union that represents meat inspectors.
“What they’re saying is not common sense,” said Painter, noting that he spoke only for himself, not the USDA. If a plant speeds up evisceration lines in order to increase production, the shackling and slaughter processes would also have to go faster in order to supply more birds, he said.
Critics of an earlier proposal to speed up evisceration lines made the same argument back in 2013, The Washington Post reported at the time.
Anyone who says otherwise, Painter told HuffPost, is “either blowing smoke or he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
The well-being of chickens is not the only concern for opponents of the industry proposal. Poultry workers hold some of the country’s most dangerous jobs, United Food and Commercial Workers union President Marc Perrone told HuffPost last month. Increasing work speeds, he said, could exacerbate workplace injuries like carpal tunnel.
The USDA is accepting public comment on the proposal until Dec. 13.