USDA Continues to Lift Meat Processing Line Speed Limits During Pandemic, Threatening Frontline Workers and Consumers

USDA Continues to Lift Meat Processing Line Speed Limits During Pandemic, Threatening Frontline Workers and Consumers

Posted by Claire Kelloway in Beef, Chicken, Newsletter, Pork, Slaughterhouse Labor

Photo courtesy of iStock by Getty Images

While the country grapples with the COVID-19 crisis, USDA food safety officials have been making decisions that could further sicken Americans and threaten frontline food workers. In the past month, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) allowed four poultry plants to increase their processing speeds and granted an unprecedented waiver for a beef plant to operate at faster speeds with fewer inspectors on the line. The agency also accepted applications for controversial changes in pork slaughter and welcomed a new food safety chief with deep industry ties.

As COVID-19 creates new safety risks for both meat processing workers and federal FSIS inspectors, plants need to figure out how to protect workers while also ensuring a safe supply of meat for the country. As plants face shortages of workers and inspectors, advocates argue that processing lines should respond by slowing down. Instead, the USDA continues to grant waivers that allow plants to run at faster speeds with fewer inspectors on the line.

“As FSIS is struggling to keep plants properly staffed and inspectors properly protected during the COVID-19 crisis, it somehow found time to pull out the stops for industry,” said Tony Corbo, senior government affairs representative for Food & Water Action, in a statement. “If you cannot meet your staffing standards, then you’re going to have to tell the plants to slow down,” Corbo added in an interview.

Recent Waivers Part of Broader Slaughter Deregulation at USDA

Line speed increases and federal inspector reductions are part of a broader USDA overhaul of meat processing regulations that predates the current crisis. Called the New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS) and the New Swine Inspection System (NSIS), these inspection regimes aim to reduce the number of USDA inspector spot-checks and move more safety testing off-site.

Proponents say this will improve safety and mitigate chronic shortages of FSIS inspectors, and they point to 20-year pilot programs at select pork and poultry locations that found the systems to be safe.

But accounts from whistleblowers and investigations by government watchdogs and advocacy groups have questioned the results of these pilot programs and have argued the new systems increase food safety risks. Most critically, NPIS and NSIS shift some federal inspector duties to plant employees, which, critics argue, amounts to self-regulation.

The new systems also increase or eliminate line processing speeds, even though studies show that doing so increases the risk of worker injury. But because FSIS only assesses these systems for their food safety outcomes, the USDA has been able to implement these programs despite their demonstrated risk to workers. The Obama administration implemented NPIS in 2012, and the Trump administration added insult to injury by allowing poultry processors to apply for waivers to increase line speeds to 175 birds per minute. Trump’s USDA also implemented NSIS last year. The deadline for plants to announce their switch to NSIS was March 30, and, according to FOIAs filed by Corbo, two pork plants have applied, though the USDA would not disclose their names.

NSIS implementation has been challenged by three separate lawsuits alleging that the system will result in fewer evaluations of potentially diseased animals, less humane animal treatment, and increased lacerations and musculoskeletal disorders for workers, among other harms. Labor, food safety, and animal welfare organizations raised similar concerns (and similar lawsuits) with increased poultry processing speeds, as well.

Pandemic Raises Unprecedented Risks for Workers

The systemic shock of COVID-19 only amplifies these concerns. Slaughterhouse workers and federal food safety inspectors are putting themselves at great risk to keep meat available to consumers. Several clusters of meat processing workers have tested positive for the virus, and at least three have died. Meanwhile, federal meat inspectors have also come down with COVID-19, and one has died. Some meat processing plants have slowed operations, and this week one Tyson plant and one JBS plant closed after a significant number of workers contracted the virus. Workers and inspectors have criticized the response to the virus by both meatpackers and the USDA, and workers and inspectors have requested more protective equipment and paid sick leave, among other things.

Recent waivers to increase line speeds at poultry and beef plants, in particular, could make workers’ jobs even more unsafe and uncertain. Last week, the USDA approved four waivers for poultry plants to run with fewer inspectors at 175 birds per minute. One of the plants, Foster Farms in Kelso, Washington, has a long history of repeated food safety violations and links to regional and national salmonella outbreaks. FSIS also waived some line speed and staffing requirements for a Tyson beef packing plant in Holcomb, Kansas, marking the first attempt to deregulate beef slaughter.

Paula Schelling, acting president for the food inspectors union in the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents some 6,500 FSIS inspectors, says these waivers can suddenly change existing inspectors’ duties before they are trained into the new system.

“Plants are jumping left and right to get this waiver to operate with less inspectors on the line. That impact is truly huge,” says Schelling. “They’ve virtually changed the condition of employment for that food inspector and not given them the tools to be able to perform the job in those plants that have just been granted waivers.”

Schelling says the waiver to decrease the number of required federal inspectors and increase line speeds at the Tyson beef packing plant is particularly concerning because the program is unprecedented and unknown. Unlike pork and poultry, beef processing did not undergo any pilot programs for this new inspection regime. “I think it’s just a disaster waiting to happen,” says Schelling. “I don’t know enough about how the agency is going to implement this … But right now, I believe it is going to be harmful for everybody.”

Sarah Little, a spokesperson for the North American Meat Institute, said worker safety is meatpackers’ first priority and noted that several of their members have increased sanitation, offered paid sick leave, and given hazard pay to reward and protect essential employees. (Reporting from ProPublica outlines the COVID-19 worker-protection policies of nine major meat corporations as of late March.)

In response to food safety concerns regarding NSIS, Little called these claims “outrageous” and accused organizations of inciting panic during a crisis. In regard to line speed increases, Little could not comment on the poultry industry but said that, for pork, “plant line speeds change often due to various factors like worker availability” and that “FSIS inspectors make the ultimate determination on line speed to ensure the operation is maintaining food safety and worker safety controls.”

Industry-Friendly System a Product of USDA’s Revolving Door

New meat inspection systems and line speed increases in poultry, pork, and now beef processing have been overseen by a long line of FSIS directors with cozy ties to the meat industry. Barbara Masters, the head FSIS administrator from 2005 to 2007, currently serves as the vice president for regulatory policy at Tyson Foods, which received three recent line speed waivers from FSIS, including the first for a beef plant. Her successor at FSIS, Al Almanza, served as administrator for 12 years and oversaw implementation of the NPIS and NSIS before taking a job as the global head of food safety and quality for the world’s largest meatpacker, JBS. And on Monday, the Senate quietly confirmed Mindy Brashears as the next FSIS administrator after she had served as acting administrator for more than a year.

Formerly a food researcher as Texas Tech University, Brashears accepted hundreds of thousands in consulting fees from various agribusinesses, including $100,000 to testify on behalf of a meat corporation in a “pink slime” defamation lawsuit. Some of her research at Texas Tech was also industry-sponsored, and a lobbyist for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association said her initial nomination was “great news for us here in the industry.”

“In the Trump administration at USDA, there is a lot of industry conflicts at the same time that scientific capacity has taken a beating,” said Karen Perry Stillerman, senior analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food & Environment Program. “You have fewer researchers to do the kind of independent, unbiased research that policymakers need, and you have policymakers whose perspective is skewed to what the industry wants, and that is just not a good recipe for food safety, workers’ safety, sustainable practices, and our environment – or really anything that’s in the public interest.”