WASHINGTON – Labor unions and federal lawmakers are pushing back against federal rules that give processors the option of raising meat processing line speeds. On July 28, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) and five of its local unions represented by Public Citizen Litigation Group filed a federal lawsuit against the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in an attempt to end waivers that allow poultry plants to increase production line speeds. The same day, US Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the Safe Line Speeds During COVID-19 Act, which aims to prohibit processing line speeds that prevent social distancing during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The lawsuit, filed in the US District Court for the District of Columbia, alleges that the US Department of Agricuture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) failed to follow required procedures and ignored its own rules and policies when it formulated the line speed waiver system.

“FSIS did not promulgate its new waiver program through notice-and-comment rulemaking procedures,” the complaint states. “Instead, FSIS sought to justify the new program as an application of an existing waiver regulation through which FSIS may grant waivers to experiment with new technologies to facilitate ‘definite improvements.’ The new waiver program does not fall within that regulation, however, because faster line speeds are neither a new technology nor a definite improvement.

“FSIS’s failure to consider and address the impact of its actions on worker safety violates basic standards of reasoned decision making, and its unexplained departure from the conclusions set forth in its 2014 rulemaking represents classic arbitrary and capricious action...”

In addition, FSIS ignored concerns that increasing line speeds at poultry processing plants would increase the risk of injury to workers on the line by saying the agency lacked the legal authority to address worker safety concerns.

“America’s poultry 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 during this crisis,” said Marc Perrone, UFCW International president. “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. This lawsuit will help to finally stop this dangerous corporate giveaway from the USDA. Now more than ever, we must put the safety of frontline workers and our country’s food supply first.”

Poultry processors and the industry have countered these claims, asserting that enough time was given for public comment on the line speed waivers and processing lines have operated in excess of 140 birds per minute (bpm) for more than 25 years without additional safety risk to workers.

“Line speeds of up to 175 birds per minute have been around for 25 years and the section of the plant in question [evisceration] is almost entirely automated these days,” said Tom Super, senior vice president of communications at the National Chicken Council. “A pilot program using almost two dozen chicken processing plants was initiated under the Clinton administration allowing line speeds of up to 175 bpm. The modernized system has been studied, debated, prevailed in court cases, and has been reviewed in depth for more than two decades to assure its effectiveness in further modernizing chicken inspection while improving food safety and protecting workers. In fact, while the industry has been safely increasing line speeds over the past 25years, the poultry industry’s injury and illness rate has fallen 84%, according to the Department of Labor.”

But detractors have argued that increasing line speeds in addition to the threat of COVID-19 infection has left meat plant workers exposed to elevated risks to their health and safety. Senator Booker, among many others, has been a vocal critic of agribusiness consolidation and meat and poultry industry practices. Booker has introduced and co-sponsored several pieces of legislation aimed addressing what he and others view are significant problems within the meat packing industry.

In keynote remarks made during the Consumer Federation of America’s Virtual National Food Policy Conference, Booker delivered a harsh critique of the American food system calling it “fundamentally broken and worsening the challenge of justice in our country as opposed to being what I know it can be — a reflection of our core values and advancing the ideals of our nation.”

“Why is this big, bald, vegan from New Jersey spending so much time in Washington focused on agribusiness consolidation and the struggles of so many of our noble family farmers and ranchers?” Booker said. “The answer is, my work has been directly informed by my time as mayor of New Jersey’s largest city – Newark, New Jersey – as well as my travels across my state and across this country seeing the brokenness of our food system firsthand.”

Booker introduced the Safe Line Speeds During COVID-19 Act, which would bar processors from operating at high line speeds that prevent social distancing. Co-sponsors of the bill include Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). US Representatives Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) introduced a companion bill earlier this month.

“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,” Booker said. “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.”

Super said there is no data or evidence to suggest workers in plant operating their evisceration line at 175 are any more susceptible to the virus.

“Again, the line speeds in question are a part of the line that is almost entirely automated in poultry processing. Regardless, the virus doesn’t discriminate based on-line speed,” he said. “Whether plants are operating at 125, 140 or 175, plants have taken every precaution to help keep workers safe, including: social distancing, temperature checks, installing plastic barriers between work stations where social distancing is challenging, providing masks, face shields and gloves for workers, staggering shifts, making breakrooms available outside, multiple hand sanitizing stations, extra cleaning and sanitation of the plant, educating employees about steps to take at home to keep healthy, encouraging sick or vulnerable employees to stay home with paid sick leave, and testing for the virus.”