Victory Achieved in Preventing the USDA from Worsening Slaughterhouse Conditions for Chickens, with the Help of the Animal Law Litigation Clinic
Students infrequently have the ability to shape public policy. However, Lewis & Clark’s law students experienced this very opportunity. The Biden Administration recently withdrew a proposed rule that would have increased chicken slaughter line speeds after hearing from some unique experts: the Animal Law Litigation Clinic (“ALLC”) and its student advocates. The proposed rule would have damaged public policy. The ALLC successfully advocated against the rule for the benefit of animals, the environment, and worker and consumer safety. As one of those student advocates, I address each of these topics below.
The Proposal to Increase Chicken Slaughter Speeds
On November 6, 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (“USDA”) Food Safety & Inspection Service (“FSIS”) submitted a proposed rule that would have increased chicken slaughter line speeds from 140 birds per minute (“bpm”) to 175 bpm to the Office of Management and Budget (“OMB”). The FSIS proposed this increase in 2012, but ultimately rejected the proposal in 2014 after receiving thousands of public comments and congressional feedback that strongly opposed the proposal. However, following lobbying efforts by the National Chicken Council, the FSIS approved a waiver system in 2018 that allowed select chicken slaughterhouses to operate slaughter lines at 175 bpm. The latest proposal would have effectively nationalized this waiver program by making 175 bpm the standard.
Increasing Slaughter Line Speeds Is Terrible for Animals, the Environment, and Worker and Consumer Safety
Increasing slaughter line speeds poses a host of problems. To give a sense of how significant the increase would have been, this increased slaughter speed equates to an inspection rate of approximately three birds per second, which research has shown is physically impossible for the human eye to manage. In practice, the proposed rule would have nationalized the waiver system’s deregulatory processes for chicken slaughterhouses at the expense of animal welfare, the environment, and worker and food safety.
A faster slaughter speed would have led to increased production, meaning more unnecessary pain and suffering for more factory farmed birds. Furthermore, faster speeds would increase the rate of inhumane handling and slaughtering by workers struggling to keep up. By increasing production the rule would also have exacerbated the environmental destruction caused by factory farms and slaughterhouses.
Furthermore, the rule would have increased the number of painful injuries slaughterhouse workers experience from performing fast, repetitive motions with sharp tools. Faster speeds also imperil consumer health and safety because contaminated meat is more likely to be undetected by workers and inspectors.
Accordingly, the ALLC and multiple organizations that advocate for animal protection, workers, food safety, consumers, and the environment actively worked to prevent the proposal from moving forward.
The ALLC’s Work Against the Proposed Rule
Given the stakes, all of us at the ALLC were committed to doing what we could to help. The ALLC prepared a comment opposing the anticipated line speed rule that totaled more than 130 pages in order to capture the robust research and studies, undercover investigations, case law, media attention, and legislative efforts that that demonstrate the problems with the proposed rule. The ALLC, Earthrise, and the Center for Biological Diversity, met with the OMB – the largest office within the Executive Office of the President that examines agency programs before agencies publish rules – to explain the terrible effects that would result from this rule. The ALLC also rallied numerous other advocacy organizations to participate in these meetings and prepared them for their OMB meetings, which lasted through January 2021.
The tireless efforts of the ALLC and all organizations involved in these collaborative efforts delayed the FSIS from submitting the rule for official notice and comment, a federal requirement for turning a proposed agency rule into law. Then, the FSIS withdrew the rule on January 22, 2021, which is a true success for all organizations who advocated against the rule’s adoption.
Many discussions occur within advocacy circles that debate whether grassroots efforts or formal legal efforts are the best approach to ensure positive social change occurs, especially for animals. The ALLC’s legal work on this rule and the incredible collaborative efforts between the ALLC, its clients, and other organizations illustrate that the most effective outcomes occur when groups of all backgrounds and expertise work together to fight for positive change.
I am so proud to be part of the ALLC and to work with the ALLC’s attorneys, clinicians, clients, and collaborators who provided a dazzling array of perspectives and knowledge regarding the various concerns associated with this slaughter rule. Each person who worked on this project has limitless levels of passion and dedication. These traits are crucial because we still have so much work to do to improve conditions for all beings who are involved in the slaughter supply chain and the farmed animal industry as a whole.
But this is only the first step. Dozens of chicken slaughterhouses have already been granted waivers allowing them to operate at 175 bpm, and the FSIS must terminate those waivers, along with waivers issued for turkeys and cattle. Critically, the Biden Administration must overturn the Trump administration’s total revocation of line speed limits for pigs, an issue for which the ALLC will be in court in a few weeks.
Jessica Chapman is an Animal Law LLM Candidate at Lewis & Clark Law School. She is a recipient of the Brooks Institute for Animal Rights Law and Policy Domestic Scholarship. She graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, where she double majored with a Bachelor of Arts in Slavic Languages and Literature and Native American Studies. She graduated with a Juris Doctor (cum laude) from Michigan State University College of Law. She is part of the ALLC and is dedicating her legal career to the protection and representation of animals.
The Center for Animal Law Studies (CALS) was founded in 2008 with a mission to educate the next generation of animal law attorneys and advance animal protection through the law. With vision and bold risk-taking, CALS has since developed into a world-renowned animal law epicenter, with the most comprehensive animal law curriculum offered anywhere. In addition, CALS is the only program that offers an advanced legal degree in animal law and three specialty Animal Law Clinics, including the Animal Law Litigation Clinic—the world’s only legal clinic devoted to advancing protections for farmed animals. CALS is a fully self-funded nonprofit organization operating under the Lewis & Clark College 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, and is only able to provide these educational opportunities through donations and grants.