Meat/Poultry Inspection

Consumer Advocates Slam USDA Plan to Waive Line Speed Caps for Some Poultry Slaughterhouses

Criteria for Granting Waivers Announced Without Opportunity for Public Input, Sets Up Opaque Process that Threatens Food Safety

Washington D.C. — USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has issued a list of criteria that it says it will use to issue “new technology waivers” that raise line speed caps for some poultry slaughterhouses. Pursuant to a 2014 rulemaking, the agency currently allows 20 plants operating under USDA’s “New Poultry Inspection System” to operate at up to 175 birds per minute (bpm). Other plants, regardless of the inspection system, cannot exceed 140bpm. Now, however, USDA will allow additional plants to operate at 175bpm, if they can meet the announced criteria.

The Safe Food Coalition, made up of consumer and public health organizations, criticized the USDA’s plan for putting public health at risk. Consumer advocates and other members of the public did not have an opportunity to provide input on the criteria, which offer unclear protections for food safety. Only facilities operating under the “New Poultry Inspection System” for at least a year are eligible for line speed waivers, but the available data fails to show that that system actually improves food safety outcomes compared to traditional inspection. The criteria exclude “Category 3” facilities that have failed to meet Salmonella and Campylobacter performance standards, but not borderline “Category 2” facilities. And while USDA claims that it will revoke the waivers of “establishments consistently unable to maintain process control at line speeds higher than 140 bpm,” it fails to explain exactly what it means to “maintain process control.”

The announcement promises “additional information on this issue in a notice in the Federal Register in the future,” but the agency will apparently begin processing waiver applications immediately. USDA alone will determine whether a facility’s application meets the criteria. This process represents a stark contrast from the notice and comment rulemaking that established the underlying line speed restrictions, and raises questions concerning USDA’s compliance with the Administrative Procedure Act.

Contact: Thomas Gremillion, 202-939-1010

The Safe Food Coalition is made up of consumer, public health and victim groups who work on issues related to food, and organizations representing labor in the food industry.