The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting global crisis again highlight the need to reduce line speeds in pork and poultry slaughter facilities. Under a 2018 USDA decision, an unlimited number of chicken slaughterhouses are permitted to operate lines that kill up to 175 birds per minute. Last year the USDA removed the cap on pig slaughter speeds, which had been 1,106 per hour. Mercy For Animals, along with like-minded groups, recently filed two lawsuits challenging these USDA actions, but until those are heard by the courts, the current line speeds remain in effect.
We have long known that speeding up slaughter lines results in unspeakable animal suffering. Indeed, increased line speeds cause improper shackling and stunning, leaving countless animals conscious throughout the slaughter process. According to the USDA, in 2018 over 600,000 chickens were still alive when they reached the scalding feather-removal tanks. But now, dangers to slaughterhouse workers, who already suffer some of the highest rates of injury and dismemberment of any profession, have greatly amplified. Faster lines require more workers to complete the same task, demanding that they stand in close quarters. In many cases, employees stand so close together that they cut one another with their knives as they work.
As the novel coronavirus spreads across the United States, slaughterhouse workers increasingly test positive for the disease. Two reportedly died this week (although we can’t know whether they were exposed at work). In March, a Smithfield Farms Inc. employee tested positive in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and a Sanderson Farms employee tested positive in McComb, Mississippi. Tysons Foods has also confirmed several cases of the disease among employees, although it is unclear how many have tested positive. Many of these companies do not provide paid sick leave, further incentivizing sick employees to return to work.
Slaughterhouse employees themselves recognize the risks associated with continued work in these conditions. Workers at a plant in Kathleen, Georgia, walked off the job over COVID-19 concerns. Participants noted that they did not feel safe on the job and worried that they had already been exposed to the disease. Were the line speeds slowed at these plants, the workers could at least attempt to maintain the CDC’s recommended six feet of distance between one another.
Rather than shutting down slaughterhouses or slowing production to protect their workers during this time of heightened risk, the global meat industry is looking for ways to maximize production. As of this writing, very few U.S. slaughterhouses have reduced production or shut down. Beef processing plant JBS Souderton in Pennsylvania was the first to slow line speeds, and both Tyson and Cargill recently suspended production. In Canada, one slaughterhouse in Alberta and another in Quebec shut down operations after workers tested positive.
The evidence is clear: The USDA should mandate slower line speeds during and after COVID-19. This week Mercy For Animals submitted testimony to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies, advocating an appropriation of USDA funds to the creation of inspection programs that slow or cap line speeds for all animals and require a transition from live-shackle slaughter to controlled-atmosphere stunning (CAS) for chickens.
Live-shackle slaughter investigations by Mercy For Animals and other groups have repeatedly exposed the rough handling and traumatic injuries involved in hanging birds upside down by their legs and electro-shocking them. Shifting to CAS would eliminate the need for this handling and shackling of live, conscious chickens. It could also protect workers from long hours in dimly lit conditions, as the current system requires dim light to calm the birds.
Clearly, this system puts profits over animal welfare, worker safety, and human health. Now is the time to look ahead—together with lawmakers—toward ending live-shackle slaughter and creating a system that protects animals and makes our workers and communities stronger and more resilient to diseases such as COVID-19.