To get a “speed waiver” to run an “evisceration line” at up to 175 birds per minute, rather than the current 140 bpm, is going to require poultry businesses to jump through a few more hoops at USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

While most people don’t have a clue what an “evisceration line” is, it’s speed limit has long been controversial for reasons that are not always clear to outsiders. Worker safety advocates associate the line speed with on-the-job injuries.

But the industry’s National Chicken Council points out the “evisceration line” is “highly automated” and involves removal of the birds’ organs, carcass cleaning, and inspection. Birds are not killed and birds are not cut up for packaging on the line.

And while the National Chicken Council in 2017 unsuccessfully petitioned FSIS to eliminate the speed limit entirely, worker safety advocates wanted it reduced by half.

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) studies have found high rates of carpal tunnel syndrome among workers in the poultry industry. NIOSH research found from 34 percent to 42 percent of workers in poultry processing establishments had carpal tunnel syndrome, and 76 percent had evidence of nerve damage in their hands and wrists from repetitive motions.

It’s a controversy that puts FSIS in the middle. In response to previous comments, FSIS said “working conditions in poultry slaughter establishments is an important issue,” but pointed out that’s the job of NIOSH and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

After turning down the National Chicken Council request in early 2018, FSIS said it would keep the speed limits, but offer criteria-based waivers around it

FSIS said to be eligible for a line speed waiver, a young chicken slaughter establishment:

  • Must have been operating under the New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS) for at least one year, during which time it has been in compliance with all NPIS requirements;
  • Must be in Salmonella performance standard category 1 or 2 for young chicken carcasses;
  • Must have a demonstrated history of regulatory compliance. More specifically, the establishment has not received a public health alert for the last 120 days, has not had an enforcement action as a result of a Food Safety Assessment conducted in the last 120 days, and has not been the subject of a public health-related enforcement action in the last 120 days; and
  • Must be able to demonstrate that the new equipment, technologies, or procedures that allow the establishment to operate at faster line speeds will maintain or improve food safety.

FSIS on Sept 28 published a new rule in the Federal Register that expands that criteria. A speed waiver to 175 birds per minute will be available only if broilers are being slaughtered in compliance with good manufacturing practices, or “in a manner that will result in thorough bleeding of the poultry carcass and will ensure that breathing has stopped before scalding.”

Higher speed limits are not necessarily met when waivers are granted. The 20 chicken plants in the HACCP-Based Inspection Project, or HIMP, that began in 1997 on average achieved 131 bmp. The New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS) was envisioned as a 175 bpm program, but then kept at 140 bpm unless there is a waiver.

For almost 20 years, the 20 former HIMP establishments were authorized to operate at 175 bpm. Consumer advocates argued that created new competitive pressures that could undermine food safety in ways not predictable from currently available date.

“FSIS disagrees that the line speed waivers granted to the former HIMP establishments to operate at line speeds up to 175 bpm after they converted to the NPIS created a new competitive advantage over other NPIS establishments subject to the 140 bpm maximum line speeds prescribed in the final NPIS regulations,” the agency’s Federal Register announcement says. “The 20 former HIIMP young chicken establishments had been authorized to operate at line speeds up to 175 bpm for over 20 years during the time they were participating in the HIMP pilot. Under the final NPIS rule, these establishments were permitted to run at the line speeds that were authorized before FSIS established the NPIS.”

First HIMP and then NPIS are the only poultry inspection modernization changes FSIS has achieved since the 1950s. The National Academy of Sciences called for “fundamental change” in poultry inspection 21 years ago.

“Although FSIS has denied NCC’s request to establish a waiver program to allow young chicken NPIS establishments to operate without line speed limits, the Agency will consider granting individual waivers to allow young chicken establishments that meet the criteria described above to operate at line speeds of up to 175 bpm,” the agency adds.

“Under these criteria, line speed waivers will no longer be limited to the 20 former HIMP establishments, and thus, will be equitably distributed to eligible establishments. Because FSIS is not removing the maximum line speed for all NPIS establishments, FSIS has no reason to believe that granting additional individual waivers will create competitive pressure for establishments to increase line speeds. Establishments will not submit line speed waiver requests if their current line speeds meet their business needs.”

Finally, FSIS says increased line speeds may be permitted for testing improvements in equipment and technology, and it does not believe the regulatory changes put the U.S. poultry industry at any disadvantage with its foreign competition.

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