Meat/Poultry Inspection

Sen. Booker Introduces Federal Bill to Stop High-Speed Animal Slaughter and Meat Processing During COVID-19

The Safe Line Speeds During COVID-19 Act Would Slow Down Line Speeds To Protect Workers, Animals, And Consumers; Sens. Blumenthal, Feinstein, Harris, Merkley, Sanders, and Warren Sign On As Original Cosponsors

A coalition of animal welfare, consumer safety and worker rights organizations commend U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), for introducing the Safe Line Speeds During COVID-19 Act, which would protect workers, animals, and consumers from the dangers posed by higher line speeds in poultry, pig and cattle slaughter and processing. Cosponsored by Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), this bill would prohibit meat processing and slaughter facilities from operating at dangerously high speeds that prevent social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A companion bill, H.R. 7521, was introduced in the House by Reps. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Bennie Thompson (D-MS) earlier this month. The Safe Line Speeds During COVID-19 Act is supported by a diverse coalition of groups including: the American Federation of Government Employees, National Employment Law Project, United Food & Commercial Workers International Union, Food & Water Watch, Consumer Federation of America, Center for Science in the Public Interest, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals®, Animal Equality, Farm Sanctuary, Humane Society Legislative Fund, Humane Society of the United States, and Mercy For Animals.

Regular line speeds are already dangerously fast and slaughter and processing workers and inspectors face many heightened job risks that can lead to severe injury, illness, and death. Increasing line speeds benefits meatpacking corporations at the expense of both animals and people, undermining necessary animal welfare and workforce protections that should be followed particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Slaughterhouses and processing plants have failed miserably to protect workers from the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus, resulting in more than 37,000 workers testing positive for the virus and over 160 workers and 4 inspectors having already died from COVID-19. Hyper-fast slaughter line speeds make it even harder for workers to maintain distance from each other and must be blocked immediately.

“Since mid-March, outbreaks of COVID-19 have continued to surge in meatpacking plants across the country, infecting tens of thousands of workers and tragically killing more than 168.  The majority of these workers are from immigrant communities and communities of color,” said Sen. Booker. “The situation has only worsened since the USDA has approved nearly 20 requests from meatpacking plants to exceed regulatory limits on line speeds despite the risks posed to workers, consumers, and animal welfare.  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. The Safe Line Speeds in COVID-19 Act will rein in the USDA’s reckless oversight by limiting its ability to grant dangerous line speed waivers.”

COVID-19 has had a particularly severe impact on workers at slaughterhouses, where the virus has spread quickly and caused some plants to close temporarily. In the midst of the pandemic in April, the USDA approved a record number of waivers for poultry plants to start operating at breakneck line speeds, allowing them to slaughter up to 175 birds per minute, instead of the previously-allowed 140 birds per minute. A recent analysis by the National Employment Law Project found that the plants that received these waivers have all had records of severe injuries, have been cited for worker safety violations and/or have become COVID-19 hotspots.

In addition to prohibiting heightened line speeds during the COVID-19 crisis, the Safe Line Speeds During COVID-19 Act would also require the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct a review of actions by the USDA and the U.S. Department of Labor in response to the pandemic to determine effectiveness of such actions in protecting animal, food and worker safety.

The coalition encourages members of the public to contact their U.S. senators and representatives to urge them to cosponsor the Safe Line Speeds During COVID-19 Act to protect animals, workers and the safety of our food system, and also contact the USDA to voice their opposition to higher line speeds.

Commentary from coalition members can be seen below:

“Under these new ‘modernized’ meat inspection systems, line speeds are increased and federal inspectors are removed from the slaughter lines while their duties are turned over to company employees. This puts meat companies in charge of their own food safety inspections, which is a recipe for disaster,” said Paula Schelling, Acting Chairperson of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, American Federation of Government Employees. “Make no mistake, this isn’t about meeting higher food safety standards. It’s about moving product faster and cutting cost for the meat companies. This puts the safety of our food and the safety of employees at risk. We applaud Senator Booker and Representatives Fudge, DeLauro and Thompson for their leadership to put safety first during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Faster slaughter speeds put animals at greater risk of being conscious as they are slaughtered, making it nearly impossible for plants to avoid horrific animal pain and suffering. These increased speeds also jeopardize worker and consumer health—all in the callous interest of profit at any cost,” said Matt Bershadker, ASPCA President and CEO. “By prohibiting extremely irresponsible speeds and requiring an official review of the USDA and Labor Department’s pandemic responses, the Safe Line Speeds During COVID-19 Act would better protect animals, workers, and the safety of our food system. We thank Senators Booker, Blumenthal, Feinstein, Harris, Merkley, Sanders, and Warren for their leadership on the line speed issue, and we urge Congress to pass this bill.”

“In quintessential Orwellian doublespeak, the USDA claims speeding up slaughter lines has no impact on animal welfare or worker safety, when all evidence and common sense indicates the opposite is true,” said Sarah Hanneken, Legal Advocacy Counsel at Animal Equality. “This bill is crucial to stop the USDA from gaslighting the public in service of the meat industry.”

“The USDA has done too little to protect federal inspectors and workers during the coronavirus pandemic. Rather than slow the slaughter lines to reduce worker crowding, the agency has pressed forward with programs allowing for even higher speed slaughter,” said Sarah Sorscher, Deputy Director for Regulatory Affairs at Center for Science in the Public Interest. “This bill takes the reasonable step of hitting ‘pause’ on the agency’s high-speed slaughter initiatives at least until the COVID-19 public health emergency has been brought under control.”

“USDA itself has acknowledged that higher line speeds contribute to more foodborne illness risk,” said Thomas Gremillion, Director of Food Policy at Consumer Federation of America. “While COVID-19 is posing an unprecedented challenge to the workers and inspectors responsible for keeping food safe, slower line speeds are critical.”

“Speeding up the slaughterhouse assembly line exacerbates intolerable animal suffering, and threatens both consumer and worker health. The factory farm system needs to be held to account, and we are grateful for Senators Booker, Blumenthal, Feinstein, Harris, Merkley, Sanders, and Warren, and Representatives Fudge, DeLauro and Thompson’s efforts to curtail their inhumane and irresponsible conduct,” said Gene Baur, President and Co-Founder, Farm Sanctuary.

“This bill will address several concerns that we at Food & Water Watch have had with recent actions taken by USDA. We have had strong reservations about the New Swine Slaughter Inspection System that reduces government oversight of hog slaughter; we have long opposed the increase in line speeds in all meat and poultry facilities; we have advocated for an independent investigation into the haphazard approach USDA has taken to its response to the COVID-19 pandemic which has placed facility workers and its own employees at great risk. We applaud Senator Booker and his Senate colleagues who have joined Representative Marcia Fudge and 25 House members — who have introduced similar legislation in the House — for taking the leadership on this issue and we will work for this important bill’s provisions enactment into law,” said Tony Corbo, Sr. Government Affairs Representative for Food & Water Watch/Food & Water Action.

“In an abrogation of duty unimaginable to Americans seeing a surge in coronavirus cases, USDA increased slaughterhouse line speeds, putting workers, consumers and animals at even greater risk in a shameless sop to industrial agriculture,” said Sara Amundson, President of Humane Society Legislative Fund. “The bill sponsors are right to shine a spotlight on what can only be characterized as abject cruelty, and we urge Congress to swiftly enact their critical legislation.”

“Even before the COVID-19 crisis, slaughter facilities were among the most dangerous places to work in America, and the extreme pressure of the production line yielded unacceptable cruelties and contamination,” said Kitty Block, President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. “Dialing up line speeds that are already lightning fast is a recipe for disaster for workers, food safety and animal welfare.”

“High speed slaughter systems – which allow for line speeds as fast as 175 chickens killed per minute at poultry plants and an estimated 1,300 pigs killed per hour at pork plants — put profits over animal welfare, worker safety, and human health. Now is the time to look ahead, and we commend Senator Booker and Representatives Fudge, DeLauro and Thompson for their leadership to address this long overdue problem,” said AJ Albrecht, Director of Government Affairs at Mercy For Animals, which recently released hidden camera footage, recorded by a Mercy For Animals investigator, that reveals the dangers of high-speed live-shackle slaughter:

“More than 37,000 meat and poultry workers have already been infected with COVID-19, and overwhelming evidence shows that allowing meat and poultry processing plants to operate with faster line speeds will dramatically worsen the already unsafe working conditions in these plants,” said Shayla Thompson, Government Affairs Manager with the National Employment Law Project. “Meat and poultry workers are disproportionally Black people, Latinx people, and immigrants, and employers’ failure to ensure workers’ safety means that COVID-19 is needlessly spreading through communities of color at rapid rates. This bill will ensure that the USDA stops enabling the exploitation of these essential workers, and instead prioritizes their health and safety during this devastating pandemic.”

“America’s meatpacking workers have been on the frontlines of this pandemic since day one, putting themselves in harm’s way to make sure our families have the food we need. As COVID-19 continues to put our country’s meatpacking workers at risk, we must take action to reduce line speeds in these plants to ensure workers can maintain social distancing and stay safe on the job,” said United Food and Commercial Workers International Vice President Ademola Oyefeso. “This bill is a critical step to reining in the dangerously fast line speeds at so many meatpacking plants and will put the safety of workers and our country’s food supply first. Congress must pass this vital legislation immediately.”

Contact: Thomas Gremillion, 202-939-1010