The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA’s FSIS) has announced that it will conduct a study about the effect of increased poultry line speeds on worker safety. The study will inform the agency’s future rulemaking regarding line speed waivers that are issued under its New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS).

The decision to conduct a study was prompted by a court case challenging the issuance of line speed waivers to certain establishments participating in NPIS, in which the U.S. District Court of D.C. granted USDA’s motion for remand. The line speed waivers allow poultry processing facilities to increase their production line speeds, which labor unions argue endanger workers by increasing the risk of injury and making social distancing challenging.

USDA states that, since the issuance of the remand, the agency has explored various approaches to determining how it can best assess the impact of increased line speeds on worker safety, including engaging in discussions with relevant stakeholders. Based on its discussions with industry, as well its past experience with similar time-limited trials conducted for swine establishments participating in the New Swine Slaughter Inspection System, USDA determined that a line speed waiver study is the best course of action.

The study will include a monthly evaluation of worker safety data that is to be submitted by all establishments that receive a modified waiver to continue processing up to 175 birds per minute (bpm). Contracted worker safety experts will also conduct on-site visits to a subset of establishments as part of the study.

Poultry establishments with existing line speed waivers received a letter with information about the study and how to apply for the modified waiver. Establishments with a current line speed waiver must agree to participate in the study and provide worker safety data in order to receive a modified waiver. Establishments have until September 1, 2022, to inform FSIS of their consent to participate in the study, and until September 30, 2022, to submit the initial requested worker safety information.

If an establishment refuses to participate in the study or provide the required worker safety information, then its waiver will be terminated. Termination will occur after a 60-day grace period following the close of applications for establishments that do not submit an application, or after the date of the denial of an application for establishments whose application is denied. During the 60-day grace period, establishments must adjust to a maximum line speed of 140 bpm.

For establishments that receive modified waivers as study participants, the existing line speed waivers will become void once all submitted applications have been reviewed and modified waivers are ready to be granted. The modified poultry line speed waivers will remain valid through the end of the study, at minimum. Eligible establishments interested in applying can submit their request through “askFSIS.”