U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, is pushing an increase in poultry processing plants’ line speeds to new U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.
Poultry producers in South America, Asia, Canada and Europe “are safely operating at line speeds that outpace the maximum speeds allowed in American facilities,” states a press release from the congressman’s office.
And those practices represent “a significant disadvantage to Northeast Georgia’s poultry industry and America’s domestic production.”
Such a change shouldn’t harm consumers or plant workers, Collins said in a Monday letter asking Perdue to review “line speed limitations.”
However, some workers disagreed when asked about Collins’ idea during a busy late Wednesday afternoon shift change at Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. at 920 Queen City Parkway in Gainesville.
“It’s not necessary,” said James Kirkland, as he walked to the plant’s entrance with his wife, Sarah, who also works at Pilgrim’s. “It could cause more injuries.”
Samuel Beltran said some workers would have a difficult time keeping up on the line at the increased speed.
Beltran said workers are taking off skin, lowering wings and doing other things to the chickens as they whisk by on the assembly line.
“It is too fast,” he said.
Another worker said it would not be unsafe because the employees are trained. He declined to give his name.
As part of a pilot program, in 2007, plants were allowed to increase line speed from 140 birds per minute to 175. A study “showed evidence that food safety would not be compromised due to a change in line speed,” Collins said.
“The result was a true win for the American public: better food safety outcomes from fewer governmental resources with enhanced business efficiency and productivity.”
As for workers, Collins said, “evidence that faster line speeds would decrease worker safety appears limited at best.”
Evisceration, the step of production that the line speed would affect, is the most automated portion of poultry processing, he said.
A plant’s evisceration rooms only require workers and Food Safety and Inspection Service inspectors to monitor the machines as they complete the work, Collins said.
“If a worker safety issue were to materialize, plants could alleviate any risks by staffing more workers on the production line or otherwise adjusting the process to accommodate any potential worker safety issues,” Collins said.
Inspectors “regulate line speeds and have the ability to slow or stop a line at any point if the plant is not meeting process control,” he added.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture proposal several years ago to increase line speeds was met with opposition, including from the Southern Poverty Law Center and a coalition of civil rights groups.
“Meatpacking and poultry processing line jobs are among the most notoriously dangerous jobs in the United States,” according to a September 2013 statement on the SPLC website, citing a petition filed by the organization and civil rights groups.
The petition notes that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s “current failure to regulate poultry and meat processing plant work speed puts plant workers at significant risk of permanently disabling cumulative trauma disorders,” such as carpal tunnel syndrome.
Mike Giles, president of Gainesville-based Georgia Poultry Federation, said he supports the line change, pointing to the success of the pilot program.
“We have the data,” he said. “We know it can be done … in a way that produces safe food and protects worker safety.”
He also agreed with Collins that “restricting our plants to lower line speeds reduces our competitiveness with other countries.”
Giles said that if higher speeds were allowed, he didn’t foresee companies ramping up overnight.
“Over time, if you have the customer demand and the grower production in your region, then you could increase (speeds),” he said.
News reporter Carlos Galarza contributed to this article.