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Tyson Foods sought and received federal permission to increase the operating speed at poultry processing plants in Kentucky and southern Indiana even as public health officials reported dozens of coronavirus cases among Tyson workers. Now, a union representing workers at meatpacking plants in Kentucky and southern Indiana is one of several plaintiffs suing the federal government over waivers that allowed Tyson Foods and other companies to operate faster.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) granted waivers in April to several plants across the country, including to Tyson Foods plants in Henderson County, Kentucky, and Corydon, Indiana, near Louisville. The waiver program, which started in 2018 following USDA denying a petition from an industry group to remove processing limits, allows select poultry slaughterhouses to increase their top processing speed from 140 to 175 birds per minute.
“We were surprised that the USDA was granting these types of waivers during the middle of a global pandemic,” said Caitlin Blair, spokesperson for plaintiff United Food and Commercial Workers Local 227 representing workers in Corydon, Henderson County, and elsewhere in Kentucky. “The poultry industry was one of the most dangerous industries as it relates to worker injury. And increasing line speed only makes this industry more dangerous, and COVID-19 has added a new level of danger.”
Blair said the potential for increased line speeds could mean workers would have to work closer together to keep up with higher processing line speeds, limiting social distancing and increasing the risk of COVID-19 spread. These April waivers were granted as public health officials were reporting dozens of COVID-19 cases among workers at the Henderson County, Kentucky, plant. Meatpacking union leaders at the Henderson County plant and others in Kentucky and southern Indiana have previously said not enough was being done to protect their safety against COVID-19.
The lawsuit filed last week states FSIS waivers granted to some meatpacking plants in April did not account for worker safety concerns from faster speeds at a workplace that already sees high rates of workplace injury, and that the implementation of the waiver program violated federal law by not allowing for public commentary.
The Unions in the lawsuit also challenge the agency’s reasoning for the waiver program. The FSIS says the waivers allow for testing of technology and capability to operate at increased speeds. The lawsuit states that faster processing speed in the “evisceration” line of poultry processing plants — where organs are removed from chickens — doesn’t count as testing a new technology.
Industry group National Chicken Council is not involved in the lawsuit, but the organization was the industry group that previously put forth a petition to remove the speed limit on the evisceration line, a petition that was ultimately rejected by the USDA. NCC Spokesperson Tom Super said processing speeds of up to 175 bpm have been present at some plants for decades and that specific section of the plant is often becoming more automated.
“There is no data or evidence to suggest workers in plant operating their evisceration line at 175 are any more susceptible to the virus,” Super said in an email. “Regardless, the virus doesn’t discriminate based on line speed. Whether plants are operating at 125, 140 or 175, plants have taken every precaution to help keep workers safe.”
Super said those precautions include social distancing, temperature checks, installing plastic barriers between workstations where social distancing can’t be maintained, providing masks and face shields, staggering shifts, and educating employees on reducing COVID-19 spread.
The lawsuit states 35 plants have been granted waivers under the FSIS program, with 53 plants overall across the country authorized to operate at the higher speed limit. That includes a Pilgrim’s Pride plant in Moorefield, West Virginia. FSIS in April said the agency wasn’t accepting any more requests for speed waivers. A Tyson Foods spokesperson did not answer whether processing speeds have increased at plants in Henderson County, Kentucky, or Corydon, Indiana, following the waiver approvals. An FSIS spokesperson declined to comment due to pending litigation.