Amid Joe Biden’s flurry of executive actions in the first few days of his presidency, one in particular stands out for animal welfare and meatpacking worker advocates. Biden withdrew a Trump administration request to raise the maximum speed at which chicken plants can operate from 140 birds per minute to 175 birds per minute.
Taking chickens from the highly concentrated farms where they live to supermarket shelves isn’t an easy process. They have to be processed at slaughterhouses, where they’re killed and dismembered for their meat. And because chickens (and pigs and cows and lambs and turkeys … ) vary in shape and size, cutting and pulling out their meat can’t be done with machines or robots. It has to be done by humans, and to achieve the high output that slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants want, it has to be done quickly.
That’s how line speeds got to the already astonishing rate of 140 birds per minute — 2.33 birds per second — in the first place. Because chicken processing typically happens on an assembly line with multiple workers, each individual worker doesn’t have to go quite that fast, but they typically get a couple of seconds per bird at most. Workers in these plants have to use sharp knives to cut apart animal carcasses for hours on end, leaving them at risk of both brutal cuts and repetitive stress injuries.
From an animal welfare perspective, faster line speeds mean, definitionally, that the number of birds being raised (usually in brutal conditions) for slaughter can increase, and the number going through (also brutal) slaughter procedures can also increase. That raises the potential for problems on the kill line. Sometimes, for instance, chickens miss the “stun bath” meant to knock them out and feel their throats getting sliced open. Or the birds can also miss the blade, and instead die by being boiled alive in scalding water. This happens to more than half a million birds every year — a small fraction of the 9.3 billion slaughtered annually, but a horrifying number in absolute terms, and one that faster line speeds are likely to increase.
Per a Washington Post investigation, high speeds have also increased Covid-19 transmission among meat plant workers, already a highly at-risk group. From 2018 onward, the Trump administration offered waivers to 54 poultry plants allowing them to increase speeds from 140 to 175 birds per minute. These 54 plants were 10 times likelier to have Covid-19 cases than non-waiver plants, per the Post analysis. But because these plants’ speed determines the number of birds big chicken companies can send to market, the chicken industry has pushed hard to increase line speeds, even during the pandemic.
What Biden’s move accomplishes
The waiver program predates the Trump administration, and Biden is not going so far as to revoke those 54 existing waivers for poultry plants — at least not yet. Instead, he has withdrawn a proposed rule that would extend the 175 birds per minute limit to all poultry plants, effectively ending the 140 birds per minute maximum everywhere.
Interestingly, the action was taken through the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) at the Office of Management and Budget. OIRA is a fairly obscure agency but arguably the most important regulatory body in the federal government, because it has the power to review regulations from all other agencies. The Biden administration has, at least on an interim basis, installed renowned labor lawyer Sharon Block as the top political appointee at OIRA. Block has repeatedly argued that the agency needs to reorient itself toward defending the interests of workers, a goal that blocking the line speeds rule certainly helps achieve.
Animal welfare advocates praised Biden’s move, but urged that he go further. “Dozens of chicken slaughterhouses have already been granted waivers allowing them to operate at 175 birds per minute, and those waivers must be terminated, along with waivers issued for turkeys and cattle,” Delcianna Winders, a leading animal lawyer and professor at Lewis & Clark Law School, says in an email. Winders also urges the Biden administration to revoke a Trump-era effort to eliminate any line speed limitations on pig slaughter.
Advocates have other hopes for Biden, too. Josh Balk, vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States, offered a number of funding options the group wants Biden to pursue in a statement to Vox:
We’d like to see funding incentives for producers to shift from confining egg-laying hens inside cages to cage-free housing and moving mother pigs from gestation crates to crate-free conditions. Not only does this better the treatment of animals, but also potentially mitigates the risk of disease spreading through cramped confinement operations. We’d also like to see funding for research into improving and developing plant-based proteins and cultivated meat to decrease the demand for products coming from factory farmed animals.
Of course, Biden has been president for less than a week. He has nearly four more years to pursue policies to undermine cruel, anti-worker factory farming practices, and a long list of policies worth considering.
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