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November 7, 2017

3 minutes read

The Human Costs of Factory Farming

Most Americans know that factory farming is a nightmare for animals and our environment, but too often we forget that the people who work within these industries suffer as well. To remain employed, workers are forced to slaughter and process animals at dangerously fast rates.1 The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) limits meatpacking line speeds to reduce rates of foodborne illness, but no state or federal statute limits line speeds standards for worker safety.2 Unsurprisingly, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, meatpackers face an illness and injury rate two and a half times higher than the national average.3

In working conditions the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) associates with “high noise levels, dangerous equipment, slippery floors, musculoskeletal disorders, and hazardous chemicals,”4 meatpackers must quickly perform precise and repetitive tasks, often with knives in hand.5 Line processors commonly have only seconds to kill or cut apart one animal before turning to the next. Since profit margins are slim, volume is paramount, and workers are under constant pressure to process more animals in less time.6

Lives on the Line

While the poultry industry thrives, the workforce pays the price, as detailed in Oxfam America’s 2015 report “Lives on the Line: The Human Cost of Cheap Chicken.” Each worker handles thousands of birds every day: hanging live chickens, trimming skin, cutting off wings. Hourly wages are low; injury and illness rates are high.7 Even breathing takes a toll, as workers are often confined to spaces where the air is laden with dust, chlorine, and ammonia.8 According to a 2011 study, poultry processors have one of the highest rates of human exposure to some cancer-causing agents, and have an elevated risk of dying from chronic disease including leukemias, thyroid diseases, and bacterial infections.9

The rapid line speeds cause a range of worker injuries, including carpal tunnel syndrome and other musculoskeletal disorders.10 The current poultry industry line speeds generally range from 70 to 140 birds per hour. This rate is harmful not only to workers but also the birds facing slaughter; nearly 1 million chickens and turkeys are unintentionally boiled alive each year in U.S. slaughterhouses, often because fast-moving lines prevent workers from killing the birds before they are dropped into scalding water.11 Nonetheless, in 2012 the USDA conducted a pilot program in 20 slaughterhouses to test an increased line-speed limit of 175 birds per hour. Thanks to two years of pressure applied by animal protection organizations and workers’ rights groups, including Farm Forward, the USDA dropped the proposal after a two year battle12—but the industry’s valuing profit over welfare has led to a new tactic:

In September 2017 the National Chicken Council (NCC) petitioned USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue to waive line speed limits entirely, complaining that line speed limits reduce profits and dampen the industry’s competitive advantage in a global marketplace.

Taking Action

Farm Forward has joined a coalition of organizations that—on behalf of our combined tens of millions of supporters—have urged the USDA to deny the NCC’s petition. On October 16, 2017 our coalition met in person with USDA representatives to urge the department to reject these new rules. The USDA has not yet made its decision, and has launched a public comment period, open until December 13, 2017.

We urge all readers who support worker safety to comment now, even just by writing “I urge you to reject the NCC petition.” To comment, click the blue button in the upper right corner of this page. Please share this article with your social networks and encourage others to join us!

For years, Farm Forward has worked to create a more just and sustainable food system, where the experiences of workers and animals are respected and valued, but we can’t continue this work without your help. Please donate now and support our mission to change the way our nation eats and farms.



Karen Olsson, “The Shame of Meatpacking,” The Nation, September 16, 2002, available here.


Southern Poverty Law Center, “Unsafe at These Speeds,” February 28, 2013, available here.


United States Department of Labor, Occupational Health and Safety Administration, “Meatpacking,” available here.


United States Department of Labor, “Meatpacking.”


Olsson, “The Shame of Meatpacking.”


Human Rights Watch, “Blood, Sweat and Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants,” 2004, available here.


According to OSHA, on average US private sector workers report nonfatal injuries and illnesses at a rate of 3.5%. Poultry processing workers report nonfatal injuries and illnesses at a rate of 5.9%. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Incidence Rates of Nonfatal Occupational Injuries and Illnesses by Industry and Case Types, 2010, 2011, available here.


Oxfam America, “Lives on the Line: The Human Cost of Cheap Chicken,” 2015, available here.


Johnson ES and more, “Update of cancer and non-cancer mortality in the Missouri poultry cohort,” available here.


Oxfam America, “Lives on the Line.”


Kimberly Kindy, “USDA plan to speed up poultry-processing lines could increase risk of bird abuse,” Washington Post, October 29, 2013, available here.


Kimberly Kindy, “USDA drops proposal to speed up poultry processing at plants,” Washington Post, July 31, 2014, available here.