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Poultry line at a slaughterhouse USDA photo by Alice Welch

Poultry worker unions sue USDA over line speeds

Lawsuit alleges waivers allowing plants to increase line speeds endanger workers.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) and five of its local unions represented by Public Citizen Litigation Group have filed a federal lawsuit to end the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) waivers allowing poultry plants to increase production line speeds which they allege “further endanger workers already facing elevated risks” during the COVID-19 pandemic. UFCW represents more than 250,000 workers across the meatpacking and food processing industries.

The plaintiffs argue that the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) waiver program should be set aside and 10 currently active waivers should be voided. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, alleges that the USDA failed to follow required procedures and ignored the agency’s own rules and policies when it adopted the waiver program.

“America’s poultry workers have been on the frontlines of this pandemic since day one, putting themselves in harm’s way to make sure our families have the food we need during this crisis,” said UFCW International president Marc Perrone. “As COVID-19 continues to infect thousands of meatpacking workers, it is stunning that USDA is further endangering these workers by allowing poultry companies to increase line speeds to dangerous new levels that increase the risk of injury and make social distancing next to impossible. This lawsuit will help to finally stop this dangerous corporate giveaway from the USDA. Now more than ever, we must put the safety of frontline workers and our country’s food supply first.”

Nandan Joshi, the Public Citizen attorney serving as lead counsel on the case, said the law is clear that an agency must follow proper procedures when adopting a new program and must consider and address all relevant factors, including its own prior positions on the same issue.

“FSIS did not follow these basic rules when it decided to allow more poultry plants to exceed the agency’s own regulatory line speed limits,” he said.

UFCW relayed that in the first 100 days of COVID-19, there were at least 65 meatpacking worker deaths and 14,214 meatpacking workers infected or exposed. April saw the biggest spike in new COVID-19 meatpacking cases with 8,632 workers infected or exposed while May was the deadliest month for the industry with 38 worker deaths last month alone, the union relayed.

The five local unions who are plaintiffs in this case – UFCW Local 227, UFCW Local 1529, UFCW Local 1995, UFCW Local 2008 and Retail, Wholesale And Department Store Union – Mid South Council – represent more than 35,000 poultry workers at processing plants in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Indiana, Mississippi and Missouri.

At press time, USDA had not provided a comment to Feedstuffs.

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