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National Chicken Council line speed petition comes under fire

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In its petition, submitted to the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the NCC wants chicken slaughter businesses participating in the New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS) and the Salmonella Initiative Program (SIP) to operate without the line speed limitations currently imposed under NPIS.

According to the NCC, waiving line speed limitations would “allow all NPIS establishments the flexibility to choose to operate at appropriate line speeds based on their ability to maintain process control, thereby levelling the playing field within the US chicken industry, eliminating competitive barriers between US and international chicken producers”.

Currently, these processors are limited to 140 birds per minute (BPM), while processors in other countries can operate at speeds of over 200 BPM. The NCC said: “In 2016, the US chicken industry exported more than 3 million metric tons of broiler chicken meat at a value of $2.853 billion. The value of these exports is the lowest in a decade while the volume is the second-lowest in that same time-frame. One of the reasons that the US has lost its competitive edge is due to restrictions on line speeds.

“These results indicate that the broiler industry is being put at a competitive disadvantage to other global leaders in broiler meat production. Imposing arbitrary and non-science based line speeds on the broiler chicken industry only further increases the cost of production and hinders our ability to once again become the global leader in broiler exports.”

It believes increasing line speeds would not impair food safety.

Animal welfare groups have responded to the petition, claiming higher line speeds would cause more suffering for animals.

Vandhana Bala, general counsel of Mercy For Animals, said: “Our undercover investigations have revealed the horror of chicken slaughter: birds scalded alive in hot water tanks and having their heads and legs ripped off, all while conscious and able to feel pain. The National Chicken Council’s petition to allow some slaughterhouses to kill as many chickens as possible per minute would result in more botched slaughter, putting consumers, workers, and animals in harm’s way. The USDA must strongly and swiftly deny this request.”

In a joint letter from seven animal welfare bodies, also submitted to the FSIS, a call was made to reject the petition on the grounds that faster line speeds would “present unacceptable risks to animal welfare and worker safety without meaningful gains in food safety”.

Dena Jones, director of the farm animal program at the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), said: “Absent from the NCC petition, and from the proposal to create NPIS, is any mention of the potential ramifications of the proposed change on the billions of chickens killed in US poultry slaughter establishments every year. Higher speeds increase the possibility that birds will be bruised or otherwise injured, and that birds will die other than by slaughter, such as by drowning in the scalding tank. Increased line speeds also endanger the health and welfare of slaughter plant workers, and may cause stressed workers to respond by handling birds in a less careful manner or by physically abusing birds.

“Over the past few years, the USDA has documented thousands of incidents of loss of process control potentially related to excessive line speed. AWI urges the USDA to not allow the industry to profit further from a production system that is already operating beyond the limits of worker health and safety and humane animal handling.”

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