The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) are at odds over a proposed rule that would allow line speeds at poultry plants to be increased. USDA has asserted that the line speed increases would not cause further worker safety risks, but NIOSH is not convinced.

USDA is hoping to implement in 2014 modernized rules that would allow line speeds at poultry plant to increase from a maximum 140 birds per minute – a standard that has been in place since President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration -- to 175 birds per minute. In a recent blog, Alfred Almanza, director of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), stated that FSIS had contacted NIOSH to conduct a study, which was conducted at a poultry plant in South Carolina. The plant in August 2012 was running two evisceration lines at 90 birds per minute, and in June 2013 began running one evisceration line at 175 birds per minute. Almanza stated that the study showed increased line speeds were “not a significant factor in worker safety.”

But NIOSH Director John Howard wrote to Almanza, saying he felt that it was impossible to reach a conclusion about poultry line speeds and worker safety, based off of that study. He went on to tell Almanza that to make such a claim is misleading.

Howard said that in the August 2012 visit to the South Carolina plant, NIOSH found a 42 percent prevalence of carpal tunnel syndrome among workers. When the agency returned in June 2013, it found injury rates to be mostly unchanged. Howard stated he did not believe enough time had passed to draw a solid link between line speeds and injury risks. He also pointed out that the plant adjusted its operation from two evisceration lines running at 90 birds per minute to one line running at 175 birds per minute, which in his view actually decreased the evisceration operation by five birds per minute.

The proposed rules affecting speeds of poultry processing lines has been supported by industry groups such as the National Chicken Council and the American Meat Institute, but it also has its opponents including a coalition of civil rights groups that includes the Southern Poverty Law Center, Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest, Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, Coalition of Poultry Workers, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Farmworker Advocacy Network, Heartland Workers Center, Interfaith Worker Justice, Midwest Coalition for Human Rights, National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, North Carolina Justice Center, Northwest Arkansas Worker Justice Center, Refugee Women's Network, Student Action with Farmworkers and Western North Carolina Workers' Center. It also faces opposition from a group of 68 U.S. Congress members, who wrote to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on March 17, urging him to abandon the plans to adjust line speeds at poultry plants.