For Immediate Release:
April 13, 2021
Tapi Mbundure 202-483-7382
Washington – Many of President Biden’s executive orders have been aimed at undoing his predecessor’s actions—and this afternoon, PETA sent POTUS a letter urging him to overturn waivers issued during former President Trump’s administration that allow chicken slaughterhouses to run slaughter lines at breakneck speeds, with birds whizzing by so fast that no one on the slaughter line can adequately check for illness or assure stunning.
PETA points out that faster line speeds lead to worker error, which puts birds at risk of being slaughtered while fully conscious or being scalded to death in defeathering tanks—and they also endanger workers, who must wield saws, knives, and other sharp tools above surfaces often coated with grease, blood, and offal.
“These waivers let meat corporations increase cruelty to birds and put their employees at risk,” says PETA President Ingrid Newkirk. “PETA is asking POTUS to put the brakes on this totally reckless policy.”
PETA—whose motto reads, in part, that “animals are not ours to eat”—opposes speciesism, which is a human-supremacist worldview. For more information, please visit PETA.org.
PETA’s letter to Biden follows.
April 13, 2021
The Honorable Joseph Biden
President of the United States
Dear Mr. President,
I am writing on behalf of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and our more than 6.5 million members and supporters to request that you issue an executive order revoking the temporary maximum line-speed waivers issued or re-issued to 54 poultry slaughterhouses during the Trump administration. These waivers have an impact on worker safety and animal welfare.
In the United States, chickens are slaughtered and processed in poultry slaughterhouses regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). At these slaughterhouses, chickens are shackled upside down by their legs on a high-speed line to be stunned, killed, and then defeathered via submersion in scalding water. Because of the high speed at which the chickens are processed, many are inadequately stunned and remain fully conscious when their throats are cut. Others miss the throat-cutting blade and are scalded to death during feather-removal. Faster slaughter lines exacerbate the rate of worker error, which results in an increase in improper stunning and/or killing, exposing the birds to additional avoidable suffering.
Poultry processing also poses serious risks to workers, who have to perform repetitive motions quickly and for long periods of time using dangerous instruments such as saws, knives, scissors, and other tools to cut up and debone the birds prior to packaging in facilities that are often coated with grease and blood. It takes many workers standing shoulder to shoulder to keep up with the high speed at which the birds move along the lines. All these conditions combined cause workers to suffer from musculoskeletal problems (carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, and “trigger finger”) and to incur acute physical injuries (sprains, lacerations, contusions, and amputations), as well as contributing to the spread of contagious diseases and infections. Increasing line speeds only exacerbates these problems, as research shows that a faster pace increases the risk of injury to workers, and facilities with line speed waivers are 10 times more likely to have COVID-19 cases than those without line-speed waivers.
In 2014, FSIS established an optional inspection system called the New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS), which mandates line speeds for the slaughter of poultry birds, limiting the slaughter to a maximum of 140 young chickens per minute. In reaching this regulatory maximum, FSIS under President Obama’s administration explicitly rejected a proposal to allow poultry slaughterhouses to operate at a maximum speed of 175 birds per minute (bpm). However, despite evidence in the record demonstrating that higher line speeds lead to increased harm to poultry workers, the agency created a waiver system allowing up to 20 slaughterhouses to increase slaughter speeds to 175 bpm if they complied with certain documentation, safety, and sanitation requirements. The waivers are not specifically provided for by statute, and FSIS established the waiver system without going through notice and comment rulemaking, instead arguing that it had authority under a regulation that allows the agency to “in specific … cases waive for limited periods any provision of the regulations in order to permit … experimentation so that new procedures, equipment, and processing techniques may be tested ….”
In response to a petition by the National Chicken Council, FSIS later expanded the waiver system beyond the initial 20 waiver recipients. The agency then published the criteria for new and existing line speed waivers. Despite the increased health and safety risks to workers posed by increased line speeds, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, FSIS issued 15 line speed waivers to large chicken slaughterhouses with documented histories of severe worker injuries (including amputations), OSHA violations, and COVID-19 outbreaks. Government records also demonstrate animal suffering in violation of federal regulations at facilities that have been granted waivers. At a Wayne Farms slaughterhouse in Danville, Arkansas, FSIS observed “birds piled up on the live hang belt,” in some areas “3 layers deep,” who “appeared distressed, they were breathing rapidly and struggling to get out from under each other.” The agency further documented:
Behind the live hangers, on the floor and against the wall, there was a pile of DOAs spanning the length of the wall. In some areas this pile was 3 layers deep. While inspecting this pile of DOAs I observed three live birds underneath multiple DOAs. At the time of my observation there were establishment personnel picking up the DOAs, however none of them noticed the live birds struggling under the pile. After attempting to call attention to the live birds, I removed the birds myself to prevent them from smothering.
At a Wayne Farms slaughterhouse in Dobson, North Carolina, FSIS “observed three live birds in the DOA condemn vat in the live receiving department. Upon visual examination, [one] bird was still breathing …. If the live birds would have remained in the DOA condemn vat, it is likely they would have died by asphyxiation due to being smothered by dead birds being placed on top of them.”
Lawsuits have been brought by poultry workers and animal welfare organizations challenging the legality of these waivers. While FSIS has ceased issuing line speed waivers and this administration has declined to formally adopt increased line speeds, the 54 waivers previously issued by FSIS (including the 15 mentioned above) are still in place, putting millions of birds at risk of increased suffering and thousands of workers at risk of injury and infection.
You called for increased safety protocols for meatpacking workers affected by COVID-19 during your campaign in 2020, noting that poultry workers “are getting sicker” as production increases. Your administration has demonstrated its commitment to protecting food industry workers and its concern about the dangers of increased line speeds by declining to formalize a maximum line speed of 175 bpm. We urge you to fulfill that commitment by issuing an executive order revoking existing waivers that allow dozens of facilities, many of which have documented histories of serious worker injuries and regulatory noncompliance, to operate at unsafe line speeds in order to protect countless birds and workers from significant harm.
Very truly yours,