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August 25, 2021 Feature

Slaughterhouse Deregulation: A View of the Effects on Animals, Workers, Consumers, and the Environment

Jessica A. Chapman, Ingrid Seggerman, and Delcianna J. Winders
asikkk/iStock via Getty Images Plus

asikkk/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Practices whose harms are crosscutting create unique and powerful opportunities for legal advocacy by broad coalitions.

Stuff can go wrong in any conveyor line operation; slaughterhouses are no exception. But when things go wrong in slaughterhouses, the animals, workers, and consumers can and do suffer. And the opportunity for things to go wrong increases as the speed of the conveyor line increases. Today, the continuing deregulation of slaughterhouses means those lines go faster than ever, with less oversight than ever. These faster speeds increase outputs but also impact worker and consumer health and safety, the environment, and animal welfare.

Understanding these regulatory issues requires a basic grasp of how slaughter lines operate, and how things can go wrong. Accordingly, what follows is a description of the typical chicken slaughter process in the United States.1 [Disclaimer: the description of the chicken slaughter process is a bit graphic.]

When a chicken enters the slaughterhouse, she is dumped out of a cage onto a conveyor belt, where a worker is tasked with picking her up, inverting her, and inserting each of her legs into metal shackles on a moving line overhead. Sometimes the force of this process causes harm, and sometimes the legs are not properly shackled, increasing the risk of harm.

Once shackled, the bird enters an electrified water bath intended to stun her. The slaughter line, however, moves quickly, and sometimes the chicken does not sustain the shock necessary to render her unconscious; instead, she leaves the bath still awake. This can go unnoticed, and when it does, the line continues and transports the chicken to the official slaughter point, where a sharp metal blade should quickly slit her throat. But sometimes the blade—and the backup blade—miss. Incomplete or entirely missed cuts are more likely when the chicken is still conscious and she can move and avoid the blade, continuing alive and conscious to the next phase of the line.

The next destination is a tank of hot water, meant to loosen the feathers on dead birds. If the chicken has avoided the blade, she dies of either scalding or asphyxiation when she is dropped into the hot water. This traumatic death turns the bird’s carcass bright red and renders the meat unsuitable for human consumption under food safety regulations. Sometimes this adulteration is not detected and is sent down the line for processing for the consumer market.2

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data, every year, nearly one million chickens and turkeys die in scald tanks at U.S. slaughterhouses.3 The poultry industry has numerous terms for these birds—“red skins,” “red birds,” or “cadaver birds.” Whatever they are called, they are not considered safe for consumption.

Other animals, including pigs, endure similar experiences when slaughter lines do not run as intended. And even when they do, there can still be mishaps, and a certain rate of such incidents is deemed acceptable.

Evidence indicates a correlation between slaughterhouse deregulation—which includes increasing or altogether removing line speed limits and reducing federal oversight—and increased risks to animals, workers, consumers, and the environment. This article discusses slaughterhouse deregulation in the U.S., including its history, implications, and alternatives.

History of Slaughterhouse Deregulation in the United States

Overview of governing laws. Three federal statutes regulate slaughter in the U.S.: the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA),4 the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA),5 and the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA).6 The FMIA—which incorporates the HMSA by reference—prohibits meat from entering interstate commerce unless it passes inspection in accordance with the act’s requirements.7 The HMSA requires “humane methods” of slaughter and handling to protect livestock from “needless suffering,” promote “safer and better working conditions for persons engaged in the slaughtering industry,” improve products and economies, and otherwise benefit “producers, processors, and consumers.”8 The USDA has interpreted the term “livestock” in the HMSA to include only mammals.9

The PPIA requires federal oversight of poultry and poultry products to protect consumers from contaminated, unadulterated, or misbranded products.10 As the USDA has explained, although the PPIA does not explicitly require humane handling and slaughter for birds, “poultry products are more likely to be adulterated if, among other circumstances, they are produced from birds that have not been treated humanely, because such birds are more likely to be bruised or to die other than by slaughter.”11 Accordingly, under the PPIA, “live poultry must be handled in a manner that is consistent with good commercial practices, which means they should be treated humanely,” and “carcasses of poultry showing evidence of having died from causes other than slaughter are considered adulterated and condemned.”12 PPIA “regulations also require that poultry be slaughtered in accordance with good commercial practices, in a manner that results in thorough bleeding of the poultry carcass, and ensures that breathing has stopped before scalding so that the birds do not drown.”13 However, the USDA’s stated policy is to only take action if inhumane handling or slaughter of birds rises to the level of “a process control issue,” meaning that the agency does not require humane treatment on a “bird-by-bird” basis and considers enforcement only if there is an “ongoing pattern or trend of” inhumane handling or slaughter.14

History of slaughter deregulation. The USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) is responsible for regulating slaughterhouses under the FMIA, the HMSA, and the PPIA. In 1997, the FSIS initiated faster line speeds and other deregulatory measures in a limited number of chicken and pig slaughterhouses through a pilot program, the HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP).15 The FSIS “extended the pilot projects to slaughter plants for young turkeys at the request of the turkey industry.”16 The FSIS authorized slaughterhouses participating in HIMP to reduce the number of inspectors on the line and to increase chicken slaughter from 140 to 175 birds per minute (bpm), turkey slaughter from 45 bpm to 55 bpm, and pig slaughter to any speed.

In 2012, the FSIS proposed a rule that would have increased line speeds for chicken slaughterhouses broadly—i.e., beyond those participating in HIMP—but, faced with widespread opposition, decided instead to allow only 20 HIMP chicken slaughterhouses to operate at faster speeds.17

In 2013, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit of HIMP found that the USDA had failed to “thoroughly evaluate[] the performance of each of the three pilot projects.”18 The GAO further noted that the USDA failed to disclose limitations in its information, and “that faster line speeds allowed under the pilot projects raise concerns about food safety and worker safety.”19 In summarizing the primary concerns, the GAO highlighted that, at chicken slaughterhouses “participating in the pilot project, the FSIS inspector on the line had about one second to inspect three carcasses, which was not enough time, especially if a bird was contaminated with a small amount of fecal material—posing a food safety concern”—and that “increased line speeds contributed to higher rates of carpal tunnel syndrome and other injuries in poultry plant personnel.”20 The FSIS countered that chicken slaughterhouses in the pilot program “are capable of consistently producing safe poultry products and of consistently meeting pathogen reduction and other performance standards operating at these higher line speeds.”21 In response, the GAO reiterated that it had “identified limitations in FSIS’ evaluation.”22

In 2017, the National Chicken Council submitted a petition for rulemaking to the FSIS requesting that the agency implement a waiver system to allow chicken slaughterhouses to operate without line speed limits, emphasizing that doing so would result in increased “production volume” and remove “arbitrary production limitations”—in other words, allow more chickens to be slaughtered.23 The FSIS formally denied the petition.24 However, less than a month later, the agency announced that it would begin granting line speed waivers to additional chicken slaughterhouses, authorizing them to increase their speeds to 175 bpm (2018 Chicken Line Speeds Waiver Policy).25 The agency adopted this policy without notice-and-comment rulemaking, and despite previously stating that no more than 20 chicken slaughterhouses would be allowed to operate at speeds up to 175 bpm.26

Since that announcement, the USDA has issued line speed waivers to an additional 35 chicken slaughterhouses that were not part of the pilot program, with a record number issued in spring 2020,27 as COVID-19 outbreaks occurred at slaughterhouses across the country.28 The agency then stopped issuing waivers to chicken slaughterhouses and, instead, moved forward with a proposed rule to allow all chicken slaughterhouses to increase line speeds from 140 bpm to 175 bpm. The FSIS submitted that proposal (Poultry Line Speed Rule) to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) in November 2020.29 More than a dozen groups met with OIRA to express concerns with the proposal,30 and after the presidential election, on January 21, 2021, the new administration withdrew it from OIRA review.31 The USDA’s recently released regulatory agenda continues to include the proposal, but indicates that it has been deprioritized and is now a “long term action.”32 Meanwhile, dozens of chicken slaughterhouses continue to operate under waivers authorizing speeds of up to 175 bpm.33

Pig slaughter deregulation has followed a similar course. As noted above, the HIMP pilot program authorized a limited number of pig slaughterhouses to operate without any speed limits. A 2013 USDA Office of Inspector General (OIG) audit of the program concluded:

[A]ny pilot program, especially one that offers plants flexibility within established performance and regulatory standards, should receive adequate oversight. Instead, the swine HIMP program has shown no measurable improvement to the inspection process; the program was not studied during its first 15 years; three of five HIMP plants had some of the highest numbers of [noncompliance records] nationwide; and one plant was allowed to forgo an essential food safety procedure.34

The audit further found that slaughterhouses in the pilot program “may have a higher potential for food safety risks,” noting that three of the 10 slaughterhouses with the most food safety violations were part of the program, as was the slaughterhouse with the single highest rate of violations—nearly 50 percent more than the slaughterhouse with the second highest number.35 The OIG noted that facilities such as this one “are continually noncompliant” and yet allowed to continue participating in the pilot program without review, resulting in “less assurance of food safety than a traditional plant.”36

Despite these findings, in 2019, the FSIS finalized a rule (Pig Slaughter Deregulation Rule) that allows all pig slaughterhouses to opt out of line speed limits altogether. In addition, this rule also reduces the number of federal inspectors on the slaughter floor and permits slaughterhouse personnel to assume inspection responsibilities historically assigned to agency officials, including examining and sorting animals upon arrival at the slaughterhouse.37

The rule faced opposition from animal, consumer, environmental, and worker protection groups; consumers; current and former FSIS inspectors; foreign countries; public health organizations; slaughterhouse workers; unions; and more, who were concerned about the rule’s animal welfare, consumer and worker health and safety, and environmental impacts. In response, the FSIS stated that it “disagree[d] that revoking line speeds will have a negative effect on animal welfare” because inspectors would be freed to inspect humane handling off of the slaughter line; that it lacked “the authority to regulate issues related to establishment worker safety”; that it did not anticipate that the rule would have environmental impacts because market demands, not line speeds, would dictate production; and that it had addressed the consumer safety concerns raised by the OIG.38

A Washington Post analysis found that 87 percent of the more than 83,000 comments submitted to the agency during the comment period directly opposed or were critical of the proposal.39 The FSIS itself acknowledged that only the benefiting “swine slaughter establishments, trade associations representing the pork industry, and a few private citizens supported the proposed rule.”40 The agency stated that it was adopting the rule to “improve the effectiveness of market hog slaughter inspection; make better use of the Agency’s resources; and remove unnecessary regulatory obstacles to industry innovation.”41 Summarizing the benefits of the rule, the FSIS emphasized that it would increase producer profits by “roughly $87.64 million” annually, by increasing production by 12.49 percent.42 The agency’s calculation translates to more than 11.5 million more pigs slaughtered annually.43

Subsequently, in spring 2020, the FSIS issued the first-ever line speed waiver for a cattle slaughterhouse.44

It is worth noting that in addition to increasing line speeds, deregulation also decreases federal oversight. “Traditional” chicken slaughterhouses have four federal inspectors who physically look inside and inspect carcasses at 140 bpm.45 The FSIS allows deregulated slaughterhouses to remove federal inspectors from those stations,46 instead positioning them in locations where regulations prohibit them from citing food safety concerns.47 Similarly, the Pig Slaughter Deregulation Rule reduced the maximum number of inspectors on the slaughter line from seven to three.48 The rule also delegated inspection responsibilities to slaughterhouse personnel that FSIS officials historically performed, including examining and sorting animals upon arrival at slaughterhouses.49

Implications of Slaughterhouse Deregulation

Animal welfare. Faster slaughter speeds make it less likely that animals will be humanely handled by workers trying to keep the pace, and more likely that animals will not be properly rendered unconscious before slaughter. Reduced inspector oversight makes it less likely that such incidents will be detected.

Inhumane handling that has been repeatedly documented at deregulated slaughterhouses during undercover investigations and by USDA inspectors includes pigs and chickens entering scald tanks while still conscious, animals being beaten and excessively electroshocked to get them to move, conscious animals being dragged, and more.50

For example, a 2018 undercover investigation at a deregulated chicken slaughterhouse documented workers throwing, shoving, and striking chickens; frequent equipment breakdowns that were not observed at slower speeds and that caused chickens to drown in stun baths; and conscious chickens entering scald tanks.51 An undercover investigation at the same slaughterhouse the following year documented conscious chickens being slapped, having their bodies ripped from their shackled legs, and being piled on top of each other.52 USDA inspectors have documented multiple incidents at deregulated chicken slaughterhouses in which hundreds of birds died in scald tanks.53

An undercover investigation at one of the five pilot program deregulated pig slaughterhouses documented workers dragging conscious pigs, excessive electric prodding, routine beatings, and a supervisor saying they “don’t have time” to handle pigs more humanely.54 The undercover footage further shows pigs who appeared to still be conscious after stunning; a supervisor acknowledging, “Sometimes they come back, like zombies”; and pigs who showed signs of entering the scald tank while still alive.55

Worker welfare. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, “the meat- and poultry-processing workforce is . . . overwhelmingly made up of people of color, with a large percentage of immigrants and refugees. . . . The vast majority of immigrant workers are noncitizens,” with an unknown percentage of undocumented workers.56 These workers face numerous inherent risks, including exposure to live animals and the pathogens they carry, high noise levels, repetitive motions, dangerous equipment, and hazardous chemicals. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics found that slaughterhouse workers suffer from more work-related injuries than coal miners and construction workers.57

Slaughter deregulation can increase injury rates because workers must handle more live animals and process carcasses more quickly. Faster speeds increase repetitive motions that cause injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome, as well as more serious injuries such as lacerations or amputations. The fast pace also increases stress, emotional drain, chronic pain, suffering, and illness as compared to “traditional” slaughterhouses.58 According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), line speeds “affect[] the risk of both musculoskeletal disorders and injuries among workers.”59 The union representing workers in a recently deregulated pig slaughterhouse reports “a correlation between speeding up the lines and more workers going to the plant’s nurse’s station.”60 In addition, “[c]ompany data show an uptick in injuries” at this slaughterhouse in 2020, including several lacerations as well as “an increase in less-serious cuts that did not require outside medical attention”—nearly twice as many as in the preceding two years.61

When COVID-19 took hold in the U.S., it spread through slaughterhouses. Slaughterhouse workers often work elbow-to-elbow, and faster line speeds generally require workers to stand even closer to each other than traditional systems. A peer-reviewed study found that “the presence of a slaughtering plant in a county is associated with four to six additional COVID-19 cases per thousand, or a 51 to 75% increase from the baseline rate,” and “an increase in the death rate by 0.07 to 0.1 deaths per thousand people, or 37 to 50% over the baseline rate.”62 The study further found slaughterhouses “that received permission from the [USDA] to increase their production-line speeds saw more county-wide cases.”63 A separate peer-reviewed study indicates that as of October 2020, large meatpacking plants were responsible for 334,000 COVID cases in the U.S., and that the presence of a large beef or pork packing plant in a county raised infection rates by 110–160 percent.64

As of June 30, 2021, at least 574 meatpacking plants had confirmed cases of COVID-19, at least 58,897 meatpacking workers tested positive for COVID-19, and at least 297 meatpacking workers died from the virus in the U.S.65 Most of these victims belong to racial and ethnic minority groups.66 Because “[o]nly a small number of state and local health authorities are regularly releasing sector- or workplace-specific data on outbreaks and worker illness” and “[f]ew food companies have shared worker illness data at any point during the pandemic,” these numbers are believed to be significant undercounts.67 The USDA has not published any data on FSIS inspector COVID-19 infections and deaths, but it was reported that as of May 2020, at least four inspectors had died.68 The USDA OIG is currently investigating COVID outbreaks among USDA inspectors.69 The infection rates have raised concerns that slaughterhouses cannot sufficiently staff their operations.70 These staffing issues compound each other and further impede slaughterhouses from producing safe, wholesome products that do not exploit animals or workers.

Consumer health and safety. Because it both speeds up slaughter and reduces inspector oversight, including delegating certain inspection responsibilities previously assigned to trained federal inspectors to untrained slaughterhouse workers, deregulation can pose risks to consumer health and safety. As previously noted, a 2013 USDA OIG audit found that deregulated pig slaughterhouses had a disproportionate rate of food safety violations, and some were allowed to continue operating at higher speeds with reduced oversight despite continual noncompliance.71 In addition, numerous FSIS inspectors have attested to increased food safety risks in deregulated slaughterhouses,72 and recently released USDA records from 2014 to 2017 document that pig slaughterhouses in the deregulatory pilot program “had contamination rates nearly twice that of hogs processed in traditional plants.”73 Specifically, the USDA data shows that the five pig slaughterhouses that were part of the pilot program “were cited by USDA inspectors nearly twice as often for having fecal and digestive matter on the hog carcasses when they reached the end of the slaughter line. . . . [T]his type of contamination . . . contains high levels of deadly human pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella.”74

Environment. Because it significantly increases the overall number of raised and slaughtered animals, deregulation can pose serious environmental risks, including increased water demand, solid waste pollution, and air pollution.75

Slaughterhouse operations—especially, but not exclusively, chicken slaughterhouses—use incredible amounts of scarce fresh water. Based on the USDA’s 2004 data and the weight of slaughter-ready chickens in 2019, slaughterhouses use 8.2 gallons of potable water per bird and produce approximately 1,323 gallons of wastewater per 1,000 pounds of slaughtered birds.76 Since the U.S. poultry industry slaughters more than nine billion chickens per year,77 it uses more than 74 billion gallons of potable water annually.

By increasing production, deregulation also increases waste throughout the supply chain, from factory farms to slaughterhouses to rendering plants. Slaughterhouses produce liquid and solid waste, including carcasses that are unfit for consumption.

The vast majority of slaughterhouses discharge polluted wastewater into waterways.78 Nearly 300 slaughterhouses79 “pipe their wastewater directly into streams and rivers.”80 As an analysis by the Environmental Integrity Project based on federal and state agency data explains:

Untreated wastewater from meat processing typically contains high levels of oxygen-demanding substances (like blood, fat, urine, and feces), total suspended solids, ammonia, nitrogen, phosphorus, oil and grease, fecal bacteria, and pathogens. When released into waterways in large quantities and high concentrations, these pollutants can cause extensive damage to waterways. They drive excess algae growth, create low oxygen dead zones that suffocate fish and other aquatic life, and turn waterways into bacteria-laden public health hazards.81

Deregulation also increases air pollution because slaughterhouses traditionally use significant amounts of energy to operate, and need even more energy to operate at faster speeds. The slaughter of more animals requires the use of more trucks to transport them, which further increases emissions that contribute to climate change. Air pollution also worsens because wind carries increased amounts of dried waste as particulate matter.

Opposition and Alternatives to Slaughterhouse Deregulation

Public opposition. Slaughterhouse workers and their advocates, food safety advocates, consumer protection groups, environmental groups, and animal protection groups have helped raise awareness around the inherent dangers of slaughterhouse deregulation by conducting undercover investigations and publishing studies that analyze agency and industry data.82 A crosscutting intersection of these groups has advocated for more regulation, not less. They continue to engage in the FSIS’s regulatory process, bring lawsuits challenging slaughter deregulation, and support legislation that reexamines these policies.83

Congressional response. Some members of Congress have expressed skepticism over proposals to “modernize” slaughter through reduced agency oversight and questioned whether accelerated line speeds and reduced oversight are compatible with maintaining food safety, protecting workers, and complying with humane handling and slaughter regulations.84

In March 2019, more than a dozen members of Congress requested that the USDA OIG investigate whether the agency had concealed worker safety data during the rulemaking process to deregulate pig slaughter.85 The resulting audit report concluded that the USDA had failed to determine whether the worker safety data that it used to develop the rule was reliable, and recommended that the agency communicate the limitations of the data to the public.86 Specifically, the OIG determined that the USDA failed to clearly explain its underlying assumptions of data, failed to disclose limitations of the data it relied on, “did not fully disclose its data sources,” failed to take reasonable steps to ensure the reliability of the data it used, and failed to meet additional data presentation and transparency requirements during the rulemaking process.87

A proposed amendment to the fiscal year (FY) 2020 House Agriculture Appropriations bill would have prevented the USDA from implementing the Pig Slaughter Deregulation Rule until the OIG examined these data deficiencies.88 The Appropriations Committee passed the amendment with support from the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee chairman. However, the Appropriations Committee did not include the amendment in the final enacted FY20 Further Consolidated Appropriations package.

COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on slaughterhouse workers, which received considerable media coverage, has spurred further action from lawmakers. On March 11, 2021, the Safe Line Speeds During COVID-19 Act was reintroduced in both the Senate and the House of Representatives (H.R. 1815, S. 713). This legislation would prohibit the USDA from allowing slaughterhouses to operate at faster line speeds during the public health emergency period, and would require a GAO review of the effectiveness of slaughter-related agency actions taken during the pandemic to protect animal, food, and worker safety.

In addition, on February 1, 2021, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis launched an investigation into the widespread COVID-19 infections and deaths in slaughterhouses.89 This investigation is ongoing.

Further, the FY21 Consolidated Appropriations Act directs the FSIS to “do everything possible to ensure employees are safe” and “to review the impact of the line-speed waivers it has granted on employees’ health and safety and report back to the [House and Senate Appropriations] Committees within 90 days.”90 Though this report was due in late March 2021, it is unclear whether it has been completed. The act also encourages the FSIS “to consult with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to ensure that any future line speed increases would not have an adverse impact on employees’ safety.”91

Finally, the recently introduced FY22 House Agriculture Appropriations bill (H.R. 4356) includes language directing the FSIS to revoke line speed waivers issued during the COVID-19 emergency period and to refrain from issuing any additional waivers during the emergency period unless the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health certifies, after an inspection, “that any increases in line speed at such processor’s facilities would not have an adverse impact on worker safety.”92

Litigation challenging deregulation. Three lawsuits challenging the Pig Slaughter Deregulation Rule have been filed. United Food & Commercial Workers Union v. USDA challenges the FSIS’s failure to consider the rule’s impacts on workers. On March 31, 2021, the court partially granted the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment, holding that by “eliminat[ing] line speed limits without considering worker safety,” “the agency failed to satisfy the [Administrative Procedure Act]’s requirement of reasoned decision-making.”93 After discussing various harms that workers faced as a result of faster line speeds, “including lacerations, stress injuries, and being crushed by hogs that fall off the line,” the court explained that the agency’s failure to consider “decades of research about the effects” that eliminating line speeds “could have on workers” “had wide-reaching implications” and rendered the revocation of line speed limits arbitrary and capricious.94 The court vacated the rule “only insofar as it eliminates line speed limits” and stayed the vacatur for 90 days to “allow the agency to decide how to proceed” and to give slaughterhouses that had already converted to higher speeds time to “prepare for any operational change.”95

On April 30, 2021, one of those slaughterhouses, Seaboard Foods, moved to intervene in the lawsuit in order to seek an additional 10.5-month stay of the vacatur.96 On May 7, 2021, three HIMP pig slaughterhouses—Quality Pork Processors; WholeStone Farms Cooperative, Inc.; and Clemens Food Group, LLC—moved to intervene “to obtain clarity” on whether their previous line speed waivers would be reinstated so that they could continue to operate without line speed limits.97 On May 20, 2021, the court denied both intervention motions as untimely, explaining that “consideration of the case on the merits ha[d] concluded”; the moving parties were aware of the litigation—and indeed had participated in it through amici—long before the court granted summary judgment, and could have asked the court “to consider their concerns nine months ago”; and “[a]llowing intervention for the purposes raised . . . would frustrate USDA’s ability to manage a national food safety system.”98 On May 26, 2021, the USDA announced its intent to comply with the district court’s summary judgment decision, informing deregulated slaughterhouses that they “should prepare to revert to a maximum line speed of 1,106 head per hour on June 30, 2021.”99

On June 2, 2021, the slaughterhouses appealed the denial of their intervention motions and sought a stay pending that appeal, which the district court denied.100 As of July 12, 2021, the slaughterhouses’ appeal of the stay denial is pending in the Eighth Circuit.101

In Farm Sanctuary v. USDA, a coalition of seven animal and environmental protection organizations challenges the rule as well as the FSIS’s failure to consider its environmental impacts under the National Environmental Policy Act. On March 13, 2020, the government moved to dismiss the suit, contending that none of the seven plaintiff organizations meet the injury-in-fact and causation requirements of Article III standing.102 The plaintiff organizations argue that they have standing in their own right—because their organizational missions are impaired by the deregulatory rule and they are forced to divert resources to counteract this impairment—and on behalf of their members, some of whom live and recreate near waterways that slaughterhouses taking advantage of the deregulatory rule discharge into, and some of whom consume pork products and are exposed to higher risks of potentially fatal and antibiotic-resistant foodborne illnesses as a result of the deregulation.103 On June 28, 2021, the court denied the motion, holding that the plaintiffs had adequately alleged standing.104

Finally, Center for Food Safety v. Perdue focuses on the implications of the rule for consumer health and safety. The court recently denied the FSIS’s motion to dismiss this case on standing grounds, holding that the deregulatory rule put members of the plaintiff organizations at increased “risk of illness from consuming adulterated pork,” “sufficiently establishing standing based on potential future harm,” and that the organizations also had standing in their own right because the deregulatory rule “frustrated the organizations’ food-safety missions and forced them to divert organizational resources.”105 The defendants produced the administrative record on July 1, 2021.106

In addition, two pending lawsuits challenge the FSIS’s 2018 Chicken Line Speeds Waiver Policy. Humane Society of the U.S. v. Perdue challenges the policy on a variety of grounds, including failure to consider animal welfare, worker safety, and environmental impacts.107 This case awaits a ruling on the government’s motion to dismiss on standing grounds. United Food & Commercial Workers Union v. USDA focuses on the interests of workers who are likely to suffer higher rates of injury as a result of the policy.108 This case also awaits a ruling on the government’s motion to dismiss on standing grounds.

Biden administration’s impact. On the campaign trail, Joe Biden spoke of his concern about increased line speeds—“Whether it’s cattle, whether it’s beef, whether it’s pigs, whether it’s chicken, they’re moving down that line faster and faster and faster to increase the profit rate. People are getting sicker; people are getting hurt”—and called for “slow[ing] the process.”109 Days after President Biden’s inauguration, his administration withdrew the proposed Poultry Line Speed Rule from OIRA’s official review. The proposal remains on the agency’s regulatory agenda but has been deprioritized and designated as a long-term action.110 Meanwhile, the dozens of waivers issued to chicken slaughterhouses authorizing them to operate at up to 175 bpm remain intact.

In response to the district court ruling vacating the portion of the Pig Slaughter Deregulation Rule that revokes line speed limits, the USDA notified pig slaughterhouses that they were required to slow their lines by June 30, 2021.111 However, slaughterhouses are seeking appellate review of the vacatur.112

Given the ongoing consideration of slaughter deregulation by both the courts and the administration, there are many open questions and possible directions. At present, dozens of chicken slaughterhouses are operating at higher speeds with reduced inspector oversight pursuant to waivers, and the industry is seeking to reinstate the ability of pig slaughterhouses to operate with no line speed limits whatsoever and reduced inspector oversight.

Alternatives to deregulation. An obvious alternative to deregulation—one that pending litigation and legislation seeks, as discussed above—is reversing course and maintaining long-standing line speed limits and inspector oversight in slaughterhouses. Given the animal welfare, worker safety, and consumer health issues that persist even under traditional inspection systems, the USDA might further consider slowing line speeds further, and increasing inspector oversight.

Because slaughter deregulation—and especially line speed increases—are so closely tied to pushes for increased meat and poultry production, it is also worth taking a step back to consider alternatives to our unprecedented consumption of animal products. The Farm System Reform Act (FSRA), which was introduced during the last Congress and is expected to be reintroduced this session, embodies one such alternative approach. Although it would not directly regulate slaughterhouses, the FSRA has significant implications for the issues discussed in this article. By placing an immediate moratorium on new or expanded confined animal feed operations (CAFOs), phasing out the largest CAFOs by 2040, and providing financial incentives to help farmers transition to non-CAFO food systems, the FSRA has the potential to significantly impact the push to slaughter millions more animals annually, which is a primary driver of the push for deregulation.113

Given the limited legal protections currently afforded to birds—who comprise the vast majority of land animals that humans consume—increased attention to their handling and slaughter, including the use of controlled atmosphere stunning (CAS), is also warranted. CAS is the process in which workers put animals into a room whose ventilation system modifies the atmosphere to induce euthanasia conditions.114 This system replaces stunning baths. Under CAS, animals become unconscious through exposure to a mixture of select gases before they are handled by slaughterhouse workers, and experience less stress in preparation for slaughter.115 CAS could improve slaughterhouses’ processing conditions, including at high-volume operations. CAS ensures that animals die at the official slaughter station while unconscious, which reduces animal suffering and also their struggle, which improves food safety. Employing CAS could also improve and promote a safer environment for workers because unconscious animals are easier to handle, which also improves the efficiency of the slaughter process. CAS would enable slaughterhouses to kill animals more efficiently than traditional methods, but without increasing line speeds. The USDA has the statutory authority to promulgate strong regulations requiring humane handling and slaughter of birds, including to require CAS. In the alternative, legislation could be proposed to address this issue.

Finally, given the many intersecting stakeholder interests impacted by slaughterhouse deregulation, a federal slaughterhouse oversight commission might be considered to thoroughly assess deregulation and its alternatives.116


1. For a more detailed discussion of the poultry slaughter process, and related welfare concerns, see Eur. Food Safety Auth., Scientific Opinion, Slaughter of Animals: Poultry, 17 EFSA J. 1 (2019),

2. See, e.g., Public Resources, Food Integrity Campaign, (select “Affidavit – USDA Poultry Inspector #7” under “High-Speed Poultry” campaign) (last visited July 1, 2021).

3. Kimberly Kindy, USDA Plan to Speed Up Poultry-Processing Lines Could Increase Risk of Bird Abuse, Wash. Post (Oct. 29, 2013),

4. 21 U.S.C. §§ 601–695.

5. 7 U.S.C. §§ 1901–1907.

6. 21 U.S.C. §§ 451–472.

7. Id. §§ 603, 604, 621.

8. 7 U.S.C. § 1901.

9. FSIS Final Response to Petition, Petition to Include Poultry under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, No. 17-06 (U.S.D.A. Mar. 14, 2018),

10. 21 U.S.C. §§ 451, 452.

11. Treatment of Live Poultry Before Slaughter, 70 Fed. Reg. 56,624, 56,624 (Sept. 28, 2005).

12. Id.

13. Id.

14. FSIS Directive 6110.1, Verification of Poultry Good Commercial Practices 3 (U.S.D.A. 2018), For a more detailed discussion of this issue, see Animal Welfare Inst., The Welfare of Birds at Slaughter in the United States: The Need for Government Regulation (3d ed. 2020),

15. HACCP-Based Meat and Poultry Inspection Concepts, 62 Fed. Reg. 31,553 (June 10, 1997). “HACCP” refers to the USDA’s Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point program. Pathogen Reduction; Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) Systems, 61 Fed. Reg. 38,806, 38,814 (July 25, 1996).

16. U.S. Gov’t Accountability Off., GAO-13-755, Food Safety: More Disclosure and Data Needed to Clarify Impact of Changes to Poultry and Hog Inspections 2 n.3 (2013) [hereinafter GAO Food Safety Audit],

17. Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection, 77 Fed. Reg. 4408, 4408 (Jan. 27, 2012); Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection, 79 Fed. Reg. 49,566, 49,566 (Aug. 21, 2014).

18. GAO Food Safety Audit, supra note 16, at 10.

19. Id. at Highlights.

20. Id. at 19.

21. Id.

22. Id. at 20.

23. Petition to Permit Waivers of the Maximum Line Speed Rates for Poultry, No. 17-05, at 7, 12 (U.S.D.A. Sept. 1, 2017),

24. FSIS Final Response to Petition, Petition to Permit Waivers of the Maximum Line Speed Rates for Poultry, No. 17-05 (U.S.D.A. Jan. 29, 2018),

25. Press Release, FSIS, Constituent Update: FSIS’ Criteria for Consideration of Waiver Requests from Young Chicken Slaughter Establishments to Operate at Line Speeds Up to 175 Birds per Minute (Feb. 23, 2018),

26. Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection, 79 Fed. Reg. 49,566, 49,583 (Aug. 21, 2014).

27. Salmonella Initiative Program (SIP) Participants Table, Food Safety & Inspection Serv. [hereinafter FSIS SIP Participants Table], (last updated Apr. 12, 2021).

28. Mike Hughlett & Adam Belz, Coronavirus Hit Meat Plants Just as Workers Were Being Asked to Speed Up, Star Trib. (May 25, 2020),

29. USDA Rule to Increase Poultry-Processing Line Speeds under OMB Review, Safety+Health (Nov. 17, 2020),

30. See EO 12866 Meetings Search Results, Off. of Info. & Regul. Affs., (last visited July 1, 2021).

31. OIRA Conclusion of EO 12866 Regulatory Review, Off. of Info. & Regul. Affs. (Jan. 22, 2021), (RIN 0583-AD85).

32. Anneke Baran Altieri et al., OMB Releases Spring 2021 Unified Agenda of Regulatory Actions, JD Supra (July 8, 2021),

33. FSIS SIP Participants Table, supra note 27.

34. Off. of Inspector Gen., U.S. Dep’t of Agric., Food Safety and Inspection Service—Inspection and Enforcement Activities at Swine Slaughter Plants, Audit Rep. 24601-0001-41, at 17, 19 (2013),

35. Id.

36. Id. at 18.

37. Modernization of Swine Slaughter Inspection, 84 Fed. Reg. 52,300 (Oct. 1, 2019).

38. Id. at 52,305–06, 52,315, 52,317.

39. Kimberly Kindy, Inspector General Wants to Know If USDA Concealed Worker Safety Data, Wash. Post (June 25, 2019),

40. 84 Fed. Reg. at 52,311.

41. Id. at 52,300.

42. Id. at 52,335.

43. “[S]uch an increase in efficiency . . . will increase producer surplus by roughly $87.64 million,” based on “an average packer margin of $7.60 per head” (87,640,000 divided by 7.6 is 11,531,579). Id.

44. FSIS SIP Participants Table, supra note 27; Thomas Gremillion, The Wrong Way to Modernize Beef Inspection, Food Safety News (Oct. 31, 2020),

45. Petition to Permit Waivers of Maximum Line Speeds for Young Chicken Establishments Operating under the New Poultry Inspection System, 83 Fed. Reg. 49,048, 49,048 (Sept. 28, 2018).

46. Id.

47. Public Resources, supra note 2 (select “Affidavit – USDA Poultry Inspector #3” under “High-Speed Poultry” campaign).

48. 84 Fed. Reg. at 52,314.

49. Id. at 52,311.

50. See, e.g., Press Release, Ctr. for Biological Diversity, USDA Inspector Describes Filth, Mistreatment at “Model” High-Speed Slaughterhouse (Apr. 16, 2020),; Hormel: USDA-Approved High Speed Slaughter Hell, Animal Outlook, (last visited July 1, 2021); Amick Farms: High-Speed Chicken Slaughterhouse Exposed, Animal Outlook, (last visited July 1, 2021); End High-Speed Cruelty, Mercy For Animals, (last visited July 1, 2021); Humane Soc’y of the U.S., Undercover at Pilgrim’s Pride, YouTube (June 27, 2017),; Mercy For Animals, Mercy For Animals Slams Tyson over Tortured Chickens, YouTube (May 24, 2016),; SIP Plants FOIA 21-136 & 137 Combined Records 02.05.21,; FSIS FOIA 2018 HIMP NRs,

51. See Amick Farms, supra note 50.

52. End High-Speed Cruelty, supra note 50.

53. See Animal Welfare Inst., supra note 14, at 10.

54. See Hormel, supra note 50; Ted Genoways, There’s a Horrifying Pork Factory Video Going Around. The Story Behind It Is Even Worse, Mother Jones (Nov. 12, 2015),

55. See Hormel, supra note 50; Genoways, supra note 54.

56. Nathan T. Dollar, Who Are America’s Meat and Poultry Workers?, Econ. Pol’y Inst. (Sept. 24, 2020),

57. Dylan Matthews & Byrd Pinkerton, How Chicken Plants Became More Dangerous Places to Work Than Coal Mines, Vox (Oct. 7, 2020), (citing Injuries, Illnesses, and Fatalities, U.S. Bureau of Lab. Stat. (2018),

58. Matt McConnell, “When We’re Dead and Buried, Our Bones Will Keep Hurting”: Workers’ Rights under Threat in US Meat and Poultry Plants, Hum. Rts. Watch (Sept. 4, 2019),

59. U.S. Gov’t Accountability Off., GAO-16-337, Workplace Safety and Health: Additional Data Needed to Address Continued Hazards in the Meat and Poultry Industry 30 (2016),

60. Tom Polansek & P.J. Huffstutter, As U.S. Pork Plant Speeds Up Slaughtering, Workers Report More Injuries, Reuters (Feb. 19, 2021),

61. Id.

62. Charles A. Taylor et al., Livestock Plants and COVID-19 Transmission, 117 PNAS 31,706, 31,706 (Dec. 15, 2020),

63. Id.

64. Tina L. Saitone et al., COVID-19 Morbidity and Mortality in U.S. Meatpacking Counties, 101 Food Pol’y 1 (2021),

65. Leah Douglas, Mapping Covid-19 Outbreaks in the Food System, Food & Env’t Reporting Network (Apr. 22, 2020, last updated June 30, 2021),

66. Michelle A. Waltenburg et al., Update: COVID-19 among Workers in Meat and Poultry Processing Facilities—United States, April–May 2020, 69 Morbidity & Mortality Wkly. Rep. 887 (July 10, 2020),

67. Douglas, supra note 65.

68. Mike Dorning, Thirty Workers, Four USDA Inspectors Dead amid Meat Plant Coronavirus Outbreaks, Time (May 14, 2020),

69. Letter from Phyllis K. Fong, USDA Inspector Gen., to Sen. Michael F. Bennet (Mar. 3, 2021),

70. Austin Alonzo, COVID’s Effect on Line Speed Waiver Recipients, 22 WATT Poultry USA 18 (Feb. 2021),

71. See supra notes 34–36 and accompanying text.

72. See, e.g., Press Release, Ctr. for Biological Diversity, supra note 50; Public Resources, supra note 47.

73. Kimberly Kindy, Pork Plants in a USDA Test Program Had Higher Contamination Rates Than Traditional Plants, Wash. Post (Feb. 18, 2021),

74. Id.

75. For an in-depth discussion of the environmental impacts of slaughter deregulation, see Dani Replogle & Delcianna J. Winders, Accelerating Catastrophe: Slaughter Line Speeds and the Environment, 51 Env’t L. Rev. (forthcoming 2021).

76. U.S. Env’t Prot. Agency, EPA-821-R-04-011, Technical Development Document for the Final Effluent Limitations Guidelines and Standards for the Meat and Poultry Products Point Source Category 6–9 (2004),

77. U.S. Dep’t of Agric., Poultry Slaughter 2020 Summary 5 (2021),

78. Nina Lakhani, EPA Sued for Allowing Slaughterhouses to Pollute Waterways, Guardian (Dec. 18, 2019), (“More than eight billion chickens, 100 million pigs and 30 million cattle are processed each year in more than 5,000 slaughterhouses in America. Around 4,700 of these slaughterhouses discharge polluted water into waterways including the Chesapeake Bay, the country’s largest estuary.”).

79. Jessica Fu, EPA Hasn’t Updated Slaughterhouse Wastewater Rules in 15 years. Environmental Groups Are Suing to Force Its Hand, Counter (Dec. 19, 2019), (reporting that “six percent are direct dischargers, meaning that they pour wastewater directly into bodies of water,” rather than to municipal sewage plants).

80. Env’t Integrity Project, Water Pollution from Slaughterhouses 8 (2018),

81. Id.

82. See, e.g., Tom Fritzsche, Ala. Appleseed & S. Poverty L. Ctr., Unsafe at These Speeds: Alabama’s Poultry Industry and Its Disposable Workers (Mar. 1, 2013),; McConnell, supra note 58.

83. See, e.g., Farm Sanctuary v. Vilsack, No. 6:20-cv-06081 (W.D.N.Y. filed Feb. 6, 2020) (pending challenge to Pig Slaughter Deregulation Rule by coalition of seven animal and environmental protection groups); Ctr. for Food Safety v. Perdue, No. 4:20-cv-00256-JSW (N.D. Cal. filed Jan. 13, 2020) (pending challenge to Pig Slaughter Deregulation Rule by consumer protection groups); United Food & Com. Workers Union v. USDA, No. 19-cv-02660, 2021 WL 1215865 (D. Minn. Mar. 31, 2021) (granting partial motion for summary judgment to unions challenging Pig Slaughter Deregulation Rule); Humane Soc’y of the U.S. v. Perdue, No. 3:20-cv-01395 (N.D. Cal. filed Feb. 25, 2020) (pending challenge to 2018 Chicken Line Speeds Waiver Policy); United Food & Com. Workers Union v. USDA, No. 1:20-cv-2045 (D.D.C. filed July 28, 2020) (same).

84. Kimberly Kindy, Congress Members Protest USDA’s Proposed Poultry Inspection System, Wash. Post (Mar. 17, 2014),

85. Kindy, Inspector General Wants to Know If USDA Concealed Worker Safety Data, supra note 39.

86. Off. of Inspector Gen., U.S. Dep’t of Agric., Inspection Rep. 24801-0001-41, FSIS Rulemaking Process for the Proposed Rule: Modernization of Swine Slaughter Inspection (2020),

87. Id. at 6–16.

88. Press Release, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, House Appropriations Committee Passes DeLauro Swine Slaughter Amendment (June 4, 2019),

89. Press Release, Select Subcomm. on the Coronavirus Crisis, Select Subcommittee Launches Investigation into Widespread Coronavirus Infections and Deaths in Meatpacking Plants (Feb. 1, 2021),

90. 166 Cong. Rec. H7885 (Dec. 21, 2020).

91. Id.

92. Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2022, H.R. 4356, 117th Cong. § 776 (2021).

93. United Food & Com. Workers Union v. USDA, No. 19-cv-02660, 2021 WL 1215865, at *1 (D. Minn. Mar. 31, 2021).

94. Id. at *11, *22, *25.

95. Id. at *29.

96. Seaboard Foods Motion for Leave to Intervene, United Food, No. 19-cv-02660 (Apr. 30, 2021).

97. Memorandum in Support of Motion for Leave to Intervene as Defendants at 1, United Food, No. 19-cv-02660 (May 7, 2021).

98. Order at 1, 3, 4, 6–7, United Food, No. 19-cv-02660 (May 20, 2021).

99. Press Release, FSIS, Special Alert: Constituent Update (May 26, 2021),

100. Order at 1, United Food, No. 19-cv-02660 (June 16, 2021).

101. Quality Pork Processors v. USDA, No. 21-02220 (8th Cir. filed June 2, 2021).

102. Defendants’ Memorandum of Law in Support of Their Motion to Dismiss, Farm Sanctuary v. USDA, No. 19-cv-6910 (W.D.N.Y. Mar. 13, 2020).

103. Plaintiffs’ Memorandum of Law in Opposition to Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss, Farm Sanctuary, No. 19-cv-6910 (Apr. 10, 2020).

104. Order, Farm Sanctuary, No. 19-cv-6910 (June 28, 2021).

105. Ctr. for Food Safety v. Perdue, No. 4:20-cv-00256-JSW (N.D. Cal. Feb. 4, 2020),

106. Ctr. for Food Safety, No. 4:20-cv-00256-JSW (N.D. Cal. filed Jan. 13, 2020).

107. No. 3:20-cv-01395 (N.D. Cal. filed Feb. 25, 2020).

108. No. 1:20-cv-2045 (D.D.C. filed July 28, 2020).

109. Benjamin VanHoose, Joe Biden Says “No Worker’s Life Is Worth Me Getting a Cheaper Hamburger” amid Meat Shortages, People (May 20, 2020),

110. Altieri et al., supra note 32.

111. Press Release, FSIS, supra note 99.

112. See supra text accompanying note 100.

113. Farm System Reform Act of 2019, S. 3221, 116th Cong. (2020).

114. Controlled Atmosphere Stunning (CAS), Linde: Indus. Gases, (last visited July 1, 2021).

115. DEF McKeegan et al., Physiological and Behavioural Responses of Broilers to Controlled Atmosphere Stunning: Implications for Welfare, 16 Animal Welfare 409 (2007).

116. For a detailed discussion of this proposal, see Delcianna J. Winders & Elan Abrell, Slaughterhouse Workers, Animals, and the Environment: The Need for a Rights-Centered Regulatory Framework That Recognizes Interconnected Interests (forthcoming 2022).

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Jessica A. Chapman is an Animal Law LLM Candidate at Lewis & Clark Law School. She is part of the Animal Law Litigation Clinic and is dedicating her legal career to the protection and representation of animals.

Ingrid Seggerman is the Director of Regulatory Policy at the ASPCA, where she advocates for stronger laws and policies in front of Congress and the administration to protect animals at the federal level.

Delcianna J. Winders is the Animal Law Program director and a visiting associate professor at Vermont Law School. Follow her on Twitter @delciannaw.