Matt's Blog: We Must End High-Speed Slaughter To Protect Workers, Animals and Food Safety Now

May 18, 2020

pigs in a cramped dirty pen

By Matt Bershadker, ASPCA CEO

As our nation continues to grapple with the spread of COVID-19, many industries are adapting their protocols to protect their workers in accordance with guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In American slaughterhouses, however, conditions are not becoming safer; they’re becoming more dangerous for workers and animals. In Iowa alone, coronavirus has infected more than 1,600 workers at four meatpacking plants. Nationwide, at least 20 meat and poultry plant workers and three U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) food safety inspectors have already died. 

The alarming spread of COVID-19 among slaughterhouse employees in Iowa and beyond has exposed massive vulnerabilities in our food system, yet despite the tragic loss of life, animal agribusinesses have continued to operate with business as usual, putting profits above the health of their workers and the welfare of animals. Working shoulder-to-shoulder, plant employees were not provided adequate personal protective equipment or given hazard pay, and already irresponsibly high slaughter line speeds have not been reduced to accommodate responsible social distancing—in fact, line speeds are increasing. 

Even as slaughterhouses were emerging as coronavirus hotspots at the height of the pandemic, the USDA approved a record number of slaughter plants to start operating at breakneck line speeds. Last month, the USDA approved more poultry line-speed waivers than during any month on record, increasing slaughter speeds from 140 birds per minute to 175 birds per minute (three birds slaughtered every second). The current higher-speed slaughter system for pigs removes line-speed caps entirely, increasing pigs killed per hour from 1,100 to 1,300 (22 pigs per minute).

These high speeds make it more challenging for plants to abide by humane handling laws and regulations, putting animals at much greater risk of rough and abusive handling, more use of painful electric prods, and botched stunning, resulting in greater suffering as conscious animals are put through slaughter and dismemberment. High speeds also place more pressure on workers to process animals quickly, drastically increasing the risks for food workers and consumers’ food safety.

Earlier this month, we joined a diverse coalition of organizations in a letter to Congress, calling for an immediate end to high-speed slaughter and increased protections for workers, including appropriate clothing and gear, sanitized facilities and appropriate spacing between employees. Our concerns were echoed in two separate congressional letters to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, which urged the agency to slow line speeds, pause existing line speed-increases and stop issuing new approvals for line speed increases

We implore Congress to include a provision in the next coronavirus relief package directing the USDA to immediately suspend higher-speed slaughter systems. This decisive action will limit the spread of COVID-19 at American slaughterhouses, thereby protecting workers, animals, and consumers.

Originally published in the Des Moines Register.