Why Slaughterhouse “Line Speeds” Matter
This post has been updated to reflect ongoing developments in line speed regulation.
In October of 2018, chicken companies got the green light from the Trump administration to move ahead with increasing their “line speeds,” which means “processing” (i.e. slaughtering and preparing for human consumption) even more chickens per minute than they were before. In the fall of 2019, the administration — despite concerns from researchers and some members of Congress — pushed through a rule that allowed pork line speed limits to be eliminated entirely (in certain plants). In 2020, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, the administration allowed even more poultry plants to increase their speeds. At the close of 2020, the outgoing administration is trying to make those temporary allowances permanent. Of course, companies like the idea of making more food more quickly — even when the recent trade war meant a lot of our chicken that usually gets exported was sitting, unpurchased in warehouses. For consumers, this might sound like a technicality (or TMI) but we think you should care, and here’s why.
Faster line speeds are bad for workers
Meatpacking workers already have to face terrible working conditions, and faster line speeds make matters even worse. The faster a processing line (a conveyor belt, basically) gets, the harder it is for workers to keep up. Think of the iconic “I Love Lucy” chocolate factory scene, but with bloodied chicken or pig carcasses instead of bonbons — and also very sharp knives. Every day, 27 poultry workers in the US experience a work-related amputation or hospitalization, and statistics show that workers get hurt much more often the faster a processing line gets. And that was true even before COVID-19 transmission became a factor, thanks to those too-close conditions, lack of protective equipment and lack of management accountability. During the coronavirus pandemic, livestock plants are estimated to be responsible for six to eight percent of COVID infections nationally. The CDC has recommended slowing line speeds as a way to slow COVID-19 transmission.
"When the USDA asked for comment about ditching the limit, more than 100,000 responses poured in, including several thousand from poultry workers begging the government not to do this. Protesters appeared outside the USDA building in diapers, saying the chicken-processing lines are already moving so quickly that workers don’t have time for bathroom breaks.”
Faster line speeds are bad for animals
The faster these lines go, the more likely it is that there is botched slaughtering and that animals who are still conscious — possibly during something called a ‘live hang’ — will experience pain.
Faster line speeds are bad for public health (i.e. your health)
When processing lines get too fast, it becomes hard for workers to eviscerate the animals cleanly, i.e. hard to pull out their digestive tracts without getting feces all over the meat. Contaminated meat = things like E. coli outbreaks, and E. coli outbreaks equal hamburgers (and the like) that make people very sick. Food and Water Watch recently examined the regulatory violations of 10 pork processing plants, including 5 who were part of a self-regulatory pilot, and found that “73% of the reports filed for carcass contamination with feces, bile, hair or dirt; 65% of the reports filed for general carcass contamination; and 61% of the reports filed for equipment sanitation.” It sounds gross, and it is: faster line speeds are gross and also unsafe.