Legislation Workplace exposures Food Manufacturing

Lawmakers reintroduce bills to prohibit meat and poultry-processing line speed increases during pandemic

chicken production line

Photo: andresr/iStockphoto

Washington — Legislation reintroduced March 11 by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Bennie Thompson (D-MS) would prohibit line speed increases in meat and poultry-processing plants during the evolving COVID-19 pandemic.

Under the Safe Line Speeds During COVID-19 Act of 2020 (S. 713 and H.R. 1815), line speed increases would be suspended in an effort to protect workers.

Worker safety advocates continue to be concerned over frontline employees’ exposure to COVID-19. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, in a press release, claims that more than 22,000 meatpacking workers have contracted or been exposed to SARS-CoV-2 – the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, while 132 workers have died.

Recent analysis from the Food and Environment Reporting Network shows that at least 284 meatpacking workers have died from COVID-19-related issues over the past year.

“It is imperative that we ensure worker safety on slaughter lines,” Thompson said in a press release. “Safety cannot be exchanged for high production. During this unprecedented time of COVID-19, we should take the necessary precautions to ensure employees are safe while working at meat and poultry establishments.”

In a statement, National Employment Law Project Executive Director Rebecca Dixon called the legislation “a landmark in the advocacy of meat and poultry workers, organizers and communities that have been demanding safer workplaces and accountability for employers and government agencies that failed to put basic safety measures in place during the COVID-19 crisis.”

UFCW International President Marc Perrone also lauded the bills.

“Simply put, slower line speeds help to keep workers safe from injuries and ensure safe social distancing to stop the spread of COVID-19,” he said in a press release.

In January, President Joe Biden signed an Executive Order withdrawing a controversial U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed rule that would have permitted line speeds at certain poultry-processing plants to increase to 175 birds a minute from the current 140.

Under the proposal, submitted Nov. 6 to the White House Office of Management and Budget by the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service, plants operating under the New Poultry Inspection System would have been allowed to increase line speeds if certain criteria were met.

Former President Donald Trump in April 2020 ordered meatpacking and poultry-process facilities to remain open as “critical infrastructure” two days after OSHA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued voluntary interim guidance intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among workers in those industries.

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