- Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the Safe Line Speeds in COVID-19 Act in the Senate to suspend current and future USDA waivers and regulations allowing meatpacking companies to increase production line speeds at plants during the pandemic. The companion House of Representatives bill was introduced earlier this month.
- On the same day Booker proposed the legislation, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and five of its local affiliates teamed up with Public Citizen Litigation Group to file a lawsuit in federal court to end the waivers allowing faster poultry line speeds. UFCW represents more than 250,000 workers across meatpacking and food plants.
- Last year, the USDA issued a final rule that implemented the New Swine Slaughter Inspection System, effectively removing regulatory hurdles for maximum federal limits on line speeds.
As the pandemic has ravaged meatpacking workers and temporarily shuttered plants, the processing plants are trying to make up for lost time, returning to normal production levels and increasing line speeds.
Despite additional precautions meat giants have put in facilities, coronavirus hasn't stopped spreading among workers. UFCW's lawsuit argues the waivers allowing poultry plants to increase production line speeds further endangers workers already facing more risk.
Since the pandemic began, more than 30,000 meatpacking workers have tested positive for coronavirus and more than 168 have died, the Food and Environment Reporting Network reported. After plants started to close to stop the spread, President Donald Trump issued an executive order to keep facilities open and the supply chain flowing. At the time, critics said this move could endanger workers. In a release about the litigation, the union said faster line speeds make it worse.
"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," UFCW International President Marc Perrone said in a release. "This lawsuit will help to finally stop this dangerous corporate giveaway from the USDA."
The industry has long been trying to increase line speeds. In 2017, the National Chicken Council and meatpackers were pushing for the USDA to approve a 25% increase in chicken processing-line speeds to keep pace with growing demand for poultry. More recently, the USDA has granted slaughterhouses the go ahead to speed up processing. The lawsuit argues that the USDA allowed 53 of 124 chicken processing plants to produce 175 birds per minute, instead of limiting production to 140 birds per minute based on regulations implemented in 2014.
UFCW isn't alone in working to stop the increase in production line speeds. The Safe Line Speeds in COVID-19 Act introduced in the Senate would suspend all active waivers issued by USDA and prohibit the department from using federal funds to develop and implement any program that would increase line speeds.
Booker said Tuesday in a keynote address at the virtual National Food Policy Conference that it is not a dramatization to say that the way food is produced and consumed in the U.S. is "quite literally a matter of life and death."
"That is true for our workers, who are being forced to risk their lives to get food onto our plates as they are crowded into meatpacking plants that have become hotbeds for COVID-19 outbreaks," Booker said.
Congress has been critical of the meat industry's response to the pandemic as workers got sick and exports to China increased while supply fell. Last month, Booker and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) opened an investigation into the actions of meatpacking plants during the pandemic. In addition to Booker's bill, the two senators are jointly calling for more strict and enforceable regulations.
Industry has pushed back. The National Chicken Council said in a post on its website there is "no evidence to suggest" faster lines increase workers' risk of contracting COVID-19. And Kenneth Sullivan, CEO of Smithfield Foods, wrote in a letter to Warren and Booker it seemed the senators formed their opinion without speaking to companies.
"This is disappointing," Sullivan wrote. "This is especially disheartening after what our industry and its brave frontline workers have been through over the past several months."