Senate bill would block faster line speeds at meat plants during pandemic

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey said workers “are crowded into meatpacking plants that have become hotbeds for COVID-19 outbreaks.”

In the name of worker safety, seven Democratic senators introduced a bill on Tuesday to block the USDA from allowing faster line speeds at meat plants during the pandemic and to suspend line-speed waivers it already has issued. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey said workers “are crowded into meatpacking plants that have become hotbeds for COVID-19 outbreaks.”

“I’m doing the fight to stop the line speeds at poultry plants during this pandemic,” said Booker, speaking to an online food conference sponsored by the Consumer Federation of America. He listed four bills that he has filed since 2019 to limit the power of agribusiness giants and to boost family farms. “I really do believe a new administration needs to come in and do the work, and if these (antitrust) laws were being enforced, we wouldn’t see only a handful of firms controlling the meat industry or the seed industry or the grocery industry.”

The Senate bill is a companion to a House bill, backed by Democrats, filed on July 9. A dozen labor, consumer, and animal welfare groups support the bills, including the Consumer Federation of America.

At least 170 meat workers have died of COVID-19 and nearly 38,000 have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to data compiled by FERN as of Tuesday at midday. At least 372 meat plants have experienced outbreaks.

“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,” said Booker in an announcement of the Senate bill. “The USDA should be in the business of prioritizing worker and consumer safety over the profits of large multinational corporations, not the other way around.”

A lawsuit filed by the United Food and Commercial Workers union asks the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to overturn a 2018 USDA program that allows poultry processors to run slaughter lines at 175 birds per minute, up from the usual limit of 140, reported DTN/Progressive Farmer. The USDA also has created a new swine inspection system that allows slaughter plants to run lines at higher speeds.

“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 UFCW president Marc Perrone.

Congress is nearing the point in an election year when legislative work slows and eventually halts. The coronavirus bill under discussion on Capitol Hill is expected to be the last relief bill considered before the November 3 general election, for example.

Besides Booker, sponsors of the line-speed bill were Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, and Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris of California. In the House, sponsors are Reps. Maria Fudge of Ohio, Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, and Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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