- Meatpackers are asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to approve a 25% increase in chicken processing-line speeds in an effort to keep pace with growing domestic and international demand for poultry, reports The Wall Street Journal.
- A change would reverse a 2014 Obama administration decision to limit U.S. poultry plants to a slower speed, which was put in place for food and worker safety purposes. Unions, academics and some meat inspectors are among those opposed to the faster processing speeds.
- The National Chicken Council, which represents poultry companies, is on the other side of the argument. The council’s president wrote in a petition filed this month, “This change will not affect food safety — if anything, it will enhance it.” He expects faster lines, which could process 175 chickens or more a minute versus 140 currently, would enable poultry plants to hire more workers, automate more tasks and change plant layouts to ensure employee safety.
Protein — and poultry, specifically — is big business. In spite of health concerns and new advances in meat substitutes, meat and poultry sales are forecast to increase. Last year, Rabobank Food & Agribusiness Research and Advisory group reported that meat consumption on the whole posted its largest increase in 40 years. Packaged Facts projects meat and poultry will remain “mainstays and protein powerhouses.” Meat and poultry will compose the bulk of a market forecast to approach $100 billion in 2021. In contrast, sales of meat substitutes are projected to still be less than $2 billion around the same time.
To meet rising demand, big meat producers — Tyson, Foster Farms and Sanderson Farms — are building new plants and expanding and upgrading existing facilities. Maybe even more importantly, manufacturers are pumping capital into state-of-the-art locations and upgrades to improve operating efficiency. Now, they want the USDA to let them speed up processing lines too — all in the name of producing more chicken products, more quickly.
But many consumers tend to favor slower, more traditional poultry production methods. This primarily entails slow-growing chicken — as they're being raised (not post-slaughter) — since it's seen as being more humane for the animals and consumers believe the chickens to be "healthier" this way. The move to speed up processing lines once chickens have already been slaughtered probably isn't on the consumer's radar as much as it is for the union and meat inspector groups.
Could all these recent plant expansions and faster processing lines end up being a double-whammy with the risk of putting too much chicken on the market at some point in the future? It’s possible, but excess supply could mean lower prices — always good for consumers even if it's a negative for poultry processors and retailers. But given population projections, rising demand for meat exports, and the fact experts predict there won’t be enough food to feed the world’s population by 2050, the pros of loosening the reins on chicken processing-line speed seem to outweigh the cons.