High-Speed Slaughter Amidst COVID-19 Will Devastate Animals and Workers Alike

April 16, 2020

Cow in pen
  • Many slaughterhouses are continuing to operate as usual, processing animals despite an alarming surge in COVID-19 outbreaks and deaths among slaughterhouse workers.
  • While some slaughterhouses have shut down due to the novel coronavirus, others are struggling to manage the high volume of farm animals in their facilities.
  • We are appalled that the USDA is approving line-speed waivers that let plants slaughter more animals per hour with far less oversight, increasing animal suffering and hazardous conditions for workers. 

Slaughterhouses are considered essential services under state shelter-in-place orders, and some companies that operate slaughterhouses have required their employees to work under pre-COVID conditions despite an alarming surge in the spread of the deadly virus among slaughterhouse workers. Many employees are working shoulder-to-shoulder in closed buildings without enough opportunities for breaks. It has been reported that some employers have failed to provide face masks and are not consistently offering personal protective equipment (PPE) to non-management employees. What’s more, many slaughterhouse employees are not guaranteed sick pay for COVID-19-related illness or premium pay for working extra hours in hazardous conditions. 

While the situation is abysmal at slaughterhouses that are still operating, it’s also problematic when they abruptly shut down, as some are now doing in response to viral outbreaks among employees. This is because some of the animals who would have been handled in these facilities are being routed elsewhere, adding even more volume to those remaining slaughterhouses, and potentially creating much longer and more stressful journeys for animals. The animals who are not re-routed to different facilities are generally “depopulated” or “culled” on-farm, meaning killed en masse by methods that can be incredibly inhumane.

Sadly, there have now been reported deaths of numerous slaughterhouse employees as well as at least one USDA inspector. Nevertheless, in the midst of the viral outbreak, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has continued to allow a for slaughterhouses to operate high-speed slaughter systems at plants that process chickens, pigs and cattle during this time. These approvals allow plants to slaughter even more animals per hour, with far less oversight, while relying on workers who are already operating at breakneck speeds in dehumanizing and hazardous conditions—even without the added danger and stress of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

These high-speed slaughter systems spell danger for animals, workers, food safety and the environment under normal circumstancesWith fewer slaughterhouses operating with fewer workers, many of whom are sick and stressed, the USDA must stop approving waivers immediately to avoid catastrophe during this pandemic. We urge the USDA to stop issuing waivers that allow plants to convert to high-speed slaughter systems during this time. The USDA must also ensure that any slaughterhouses currently operating are meeting all legal requirements for both process controls and humane handling.

Wondering how you can help during this crisis? Join the Advocacy Brigade to stay informed about all of the ASPCA’s COVID-19 relief efforts and our work to help farm animals. You can also check out this post to learn how you can support welfare-certified farmers near you and across the country, as well as plant-based companies, by purchasing higher-welfare products online.