At poultry plants allowed to run faster processing lines, a greater risk of Covid-19

Forty percent of the poultry plants participating in the USDA’s controversial line speed waiver program have had Covid-19 outbreaks, according to an analysis of FERN’s outbreaks database. Labor advocates have warned that faster speeds on crowded processing lines could expose slaughterhouse workers to a greater risk of Covid-19, and even the top federal workplace authority has suggested that meatpackers reduce line speeds to curb the spread of the virus.

A regulatory waiver program at the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service permits participating poultry plants to run their processing lines at 175 birds per minute (bpm), 25 percent faster than the longtime industry standard of 140 bpm. According to FSIS data, 54 chicken or turkey plants have received waivers.

Twenty-two of those plants, or 40 percent, have had Covid-19 outbreaks, according to FERN’s database. That represents a higher proportion of outbreaks than in the overall meatpacking sector. Since April, FERN has counted Covid-19 outbreaks at nearly 500 U.S. meatpacking plants, about 14 percent of the estimated 3,500 meatpacking plants nationwide, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Seven of the plants with waivers and outbreaks are owned by Tyson Foods, and three are owned by Wayne Farms. George’s, Amick Farms, Peco Foods, and Pilgrim’s Pride own two apiece, and Foster Farms, Mountaire, OK Foods, and Cargill each own one. At those plants, 2,123 workers have been infected by the virus and six have died.

Debbie Berkowitz, worker safety program director at the National Employment Law Project (NELP) and a former chief of staff at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), says there is a “definite connection between the risk of Covid-19 spreading in the plants and the speed of the lines.” Workers at plants with higher line speeds could be at greater risk of contracting the virus, she says, because faster processing rates generally require workers to stand closer together.

Several of the plants with waivers have had them for years, but 15 received them in April of this year, after the pandemic was already underway. Eight of those 15 plants have had outbreaks. Berkowitz says that the non-transparent waiver process makes it difficult to know when any of the waivers were requested.

Since April, FERN has counted about 100 Covid-19 outbreaks at chicken or turkey plants, where nearly 8,000 workers have been infected and 37 have died. (FERN has also counted nearly 300 meatpacking plant outbreaks that are not identifiable by location, company, or plant type, so it is not known whether any of those plants have received FSIS waivers.) Overall, more than 42,000 meatpacking workers have contracted the virus and at least 201 have died.

For months, labor advocates have warned that plants should slow their processing lines to account for worker absenteeism and to enable social distancing. Federal agencies have also made this suggestion. In an April memo to Smithfield Foods, the nation’s largest pork packer, the CDC recommended that “[c]hanges in production practices (e.g., line speed reductions) may be necessary in order to maintain appropriate distancing among employees.”

Yet line speed has remained an issue, especially as meatpacking workers report that social distancing has been impossible in many facilities. Most recently, OSHA — which has been criticized for issuing almost no fines to workplaces during the pandemic — echoed the CDC’s recommendation about slowing line speeds to protect workers. In its first Covid-19-related citation of a meatpacking company, issued Sept. 8 to Smithfield for its management of an outbreak at its plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, OSHA suggested the company “[modify] line speed to enable employees to stand farther apart.”

The issue of line speed at poultry plants has a long history. The USDA first established a line speed limit of 140 bpm in 2014, when it introduced a new slaughter inspection system for chicken and turkey plants. This pace was, according to NELP, a “long-established standard.” But the meat industry soon began pressing for increased processing speeds. In 2017, the National Chicken Council, an industry lobby group, petitioned the USDA to waive line speed limits for some plants. Though the USDA denied that petition, in 2018 it began to issue waivers allowing plants to raise their line speeds.

After years of protest by labor and food system advocates, the USDA announced on April 24 that it had stopped issuing waivers. Yet, as Civil Eats recently reported, the agency added a proposed rule to its spring 2020 agenda that would allow all poultry plants participating in the agency’s updated slaughter inspection program to run their lines at 175 bpm.

The National Chicken Council maintains that a line speed of 175 bpm is not riskier to workers and says that speed has been “tested and proven safe for 25 years.” Still, there is a clear profit motive for companies to speed up their processing lines. A 2012 estimate found that increasing line speeds to 175 bpm could save the industry nearly $260 million annually.

Workers’ advocates continue to push for maintaining the 140-bpm standard. In late July, the nonprofit advocacy group Public Citizen and the United Food and Commercial Workers union filed a lawsuit seeking to end the line speed waiver program and to void active waivers. The groups allege that the USDA violated federal law by failing to issue a public notice and request public comment when it began the waiver program.

“As Covid-19 continues to infect thousands of meatpacking workers, it is stunning that USDA is further endangering these workers by allowing poultry companies to increase line speeds to dangerous new levels that increase the risk of injury and make social distancing next to impossible,” said UFCW president Marc Perrone in a press release announcing the lawsuit.

Also in late July, Sen. Cory Booker introduced the Safe Line Speeds in Covid-19 Act, which would suspend existing and future line speed waivers for the duration of the pandemic. The bill would apply to all meatpacking plants, not just poultry plants, and would require the Government Accountability Office to review how the USDA and other agencies respond to the pandemic.

“The USDA should be in the business of prioritizing worker and consumer safety over the profits of large multinational meatpacking corporations, not the other way around,” Booker said in a press release announcing the legislation.