Booker Introduces Bill to Boost Safety and Protect Meatpacking Workers From COVID-19
The Safe Line Speeds in COVID-19 Act will suspend and prohibit USDA “line speed waivers” that endanger workers at meatpacking plants
WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the Safe Line Speeds in COVID-19 Act to protect worker, consumer, and animal safety by suspending all current and future USDA waivers and regulations that allow companies to increase production line speeds at meatpacking plants during the COVID-19 pandemic. Reps. Marcia L. Fudge (OH-11), Rosa DeLauro (CT-3), and Bennie Thompson (MS-2) have introduced companion legislation in the House of Representatives.
Across the country, many meat processing plants have become COVID-19 hotspots. To date, more than 30,000 meatpacking workers have tested positive for COVID-19 and more than 168 have died, according to the Food and Environment Reporting Network.
“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 Senator 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.”
“The meat and poultry processing industry has been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with infection hotspots appearing in plants across the country,” said Rep. Fudge. “Fast line speeds make the dangerous conditions workers at these plants already face even worse by packing them closer together and placing them at greater risk of contracting or spreading the virus. Waiving limits on processing speeds also threatens the safety of our food supply. As COVID-19 cases continue to soar at processing plants, we must prioritize worker, food, and animal safety over increased production and profits.”
“For years, USDA has been complicit in the consolidation of the meat processing industry by gifting linespeed waivers to corporate meatpackers at the expense of worker safety, the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers, and the safety of the nation’s meat supply,” said Rep. DeLauro. “The high-profile COVID-19 outbreaks at meat packing plants have raised questions of the safety of the conditions inside these plants. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, these workers experienced injuries at a higher rate than comparable occupations. And now, faster linespeeds make it impossible for workers to practice social distancing and to comply with safety guidelines. That is why I am proud to join the leadership shown by Rep. Fudge in introducing this legislation that will reign in these reckless line speed waivers for the duration of the COVID-19 public health emergency.”
“It is imperative that we ensure worker safety on slaughter lines,” said Rep. Thompson. “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 October 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a final rule, which was implemented in December 2019, establishing the New Swine Slaughter Inspection System, which removes federal limits on the speed of production lines. Meanwhile, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has issued nearly 20 waivers for meat and poultry processing plants to increase the speed of their production lines since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the duration of the COVID-19 public health emergency declaration, the Safe Line Speeds in COVID-19 Act would:
- Suspend all active waivers issued by USDA related to line speeds at meat and poultry establishments and suspend USDA’s authority to issue new waivers in this area;
- Suspend implementation of, and conversion to, the New Swine Slaughter Inspection System established under USDA’s final rule published on Oct. 1, 2019 titled, Modernization of Swine Slaughter Inspection; and
- Prohibit USDA from using federal funds to develop, proposed, finalize, issue, amend, or implement any policy, regulation, directive, constituent update, or any other agency program that would increase line speeds at meat and poultry establishments.
Additionally, the Safe Line Speeds in COVID-19 Act would:
- Ensure the provisions of the bill are in addition to, not in lieu of, any State laws or regulations designed to further protect worker safety or animal welfare beyond what this bill provides;
- Require Government Accountability Office to review the effectiveness of various actions taken by USDA, the Department of Labor (DOL), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and meat and poultry establishments in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to protect animal, food, and worker safety; and
- Require USDA, DOL, and HHS to issue a report to Congress by December 31, 2020, including their respective actions taken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to protect animal, food, and worker safety.
In addition to Booker, the bill is cosponsored by Senators Feinstein (D-CA), Warren (D-MA), Sanders (I-VT), Merkley (D-OR), Blumenthal (D-CT) and Harris (D-CA).
The Safe Line Speeds in COVID-19 Act is endorsed by the following organizations: American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), Animal Equality, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Consumer Federation of America, Farm Sanctuary, Food and Water Watch, Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), Humane Society Legal Fund (HSLF), Mercy for Animals, National Employment Law Project (NELP), Oxfam America, and United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW).
“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 President Marc Perrone. “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.”
“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 in COVID-19 Act would better protect animals, workers, and the safety of our food system. We thank Representatives Fudge, DeLauro and Thompson for introducing the bill and urge Congress to pass it.”
“We are grateful for Representatives Marcia Fudge, Rosa DeLauro, and Bennie Thompson’s leadership in pushing this important food and worker safety bill forward. It is unconscionable that the USDA has prioritized the profits of huge multinational corporations over the health and safety of meat plant workers, the general public and even its own inspectors amidst this widening pandemic. We will be organizing across the country to help make this critical bill a law,” said Tony Corbo, Senior Government Affairs Representative, Food & Water Action.
The bill text for the Safe Line Speeds in COVID-19 Act is available here.