As coronavirus cases mounted at meatpacking plants this month, the federal government granted 15 poultry processors waivers to cut chickens faster, usually by crowding more workers onto their production lines.
Overall, poultry plants with such waivers are at least 10 times more likely than the meatpacking industry as a whole to have coronavirus cases among workers, USA TODAY and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting found.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture granted more of those waivers in one week in April than it had in any previous month over the past eight years of the program’s existence. But an agency spokesperson wouldn’t explain why in an email responding to USA TODAY’s questions.
Three of the 15 poultry plants granted new waivers in April have reported outbreaks of COVID-19, the media outlets found. Another three plants that already had waivers also have outbreaks. Some 53 poultry plants nationwide have the waivers.
As of Friday morning, 66 of the nation’s more than 6,400 meatpacking plants have had documented coronavirus outbreaks affecting more than 3,700 workers, according to USA TODAY and Midwest Center tracking. About 400 of the plants are large-scale.
Allowing plants to operate at higher speeds typically leads to more workers on the line, according to a 2016 GAO report. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union says such crowding could increase the risk of coronavirus and opposes the waivers.
“I’m convinced that the USDA is probably just putting those out there because they think we’re all preoccupied with COVID and not paying attention to what they’re doing,” Mark Lauritsen, the union’s director of food processing, meatpacking and manufacturing, said Thursday.
Tony Corbo, senior government affairs representative for Food and Water Watch, a nonprofit that seeks accountability from large food processing companies, agreed.
The Trump administration “made a promise to the industry to deregulate, and to allow them to increase their line speeds, and I think this is a good time,” he said. “As everybody’s attention is diverted to the big issue of the day, they’re deregulating.”
Calling such criticism “conspiracy theories,” a spokesperson for USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, which grants the waivers, said there’s no evidence line waivers heighten the risk for coronavirus.
The USDA grants the waivers to companies that use a new inspection system and provide increased access to plants’ data on salmonella contamination. Officials say the higher speeds offer plant owners an incentive to adopt the system and to share information that leads to improved food safety.
But Corbo said he’s requested the data USDA has collected and is always told it’s proprietary.
“What USDA does with the data is still a mystery,” he said.
In 2017, the National Chicken Council asked the USDA to waive limits on processing speeds on all its members’ poultry lines. Unions and plant-safety activists objected. Instead, in 2018, the agency set up new guidelines for individual plants to apply for those waivers, according to the Federal Register. Afterward, it began approving more waivers, including 32 in 2019 and one this year prior to April.
Then, this month, it suddenly approved a flurry of waivers. A spokesperson for the USDA’s food inspection service did not answer repeated questions this week about why that happened.
Tyson Foods has 13 poultry plants with speed waivers, including its operation in Robards, Kentucky, where at least 62 employees have been infected, according to WFPL, Kentucky public radio. A company spokeswoman would not say whether that plant had increased production speeds, but it said Tyson was speeding up some lines and slowing others on a “case-by-case basis.”
“At this point we have made a few small increases in very specific instances,” Morgan Watchous, a Tyson spokeswoman, said in an email. “As we adapt to the situation we all face right now, in several of our facilities we’re slowing down our line speed to allow for social distancing and safety of our team members.”
Of the six waivers Tyson was granted in April, the company requested three in February and three in 2019, Watchous said.
USDA granted a Foster Farms poultry plant in Kelso, Washington, a waiver in March, according to federal records. The company confirmed its first of five cases there in mid-April, according to a company statement.
“Foster Farms continues to monitor employee health in the context of a rising prevalence of COVID-19 in the region,” it said in a statement.
Three of the six COVID-affected plants with waivers, where one worker died from the coronavirus, are owned by Wayne Farms in Alabama. Wayne Farms did not respond to requests for comment.
The sixth poultry plant, in Guntersville, Alabama, is owned by JBS. Anita McBurnett, the director of the Marshall County Emergency Management Agency, confirmed the plant had coronavirus cases, but she was unsure of how many.
A JBS spokeswoman said the plant has had a waiver for more than 20 years. The plant has not made any recent changes to line speed, she said.
On a call with reporters on Thursday, union workers at meatpacking plants said the companies were taking steps to protect their safety, such as taking their temperature, installing barriers and permitting fewer people in the cafeteria at one time.
However, the workers, who belong to the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, said there had also been some stumbles.
Rhonda Trevino, who works for Cargill in Texas, said the company initially provided thermometers that didn’t work.
Margarita Heredia, a worker at the JBS plant in Marshalltown, Iowa, said employees who had come into contact with workers who tested positive were not being quarantined.
“We go to work with fear,” she said.
And workers remained in close quarters, they said. Heredia said it would take years for companies to adjust their plants to account for the six-foot spacing social distancing requires.
“I don’t think it’s possible,” she said.