Tyson Foods and Wayne Farms were named in a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday (July 28) in the District of Columbia by the United Food Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) against the U.S. Department of Agriculture over waivers the government gives poultry companies to increase line speeds within their processing facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
UFCW and five of its local unions, including Local No. 2008 headquartered in Little Rock, are plaintiffs in the suit. Local 2008 represents poultry workers on the processing line in the Wayne Farms plant in Danville, Ark., and in Tyson Foods’ plants in Dardanelle and Noel, Mo. (Link here for a PDF of the filing.) UFCW represents 1.3 million workers, including more than 3,800 Arkansas workers in meatpacking and other essential businesses.
The suit claims in April that Tyson Foods plants in Danville and Noel received waivers from the USDA that allow each plant to increase line speeds from 140 birds per minute to 175 birds per minute.
“The 15 total waivers given to poultry processing plants do not protect our food supply, but they create a greater risk of worker injury, including increased risk of catching and spreading the virus as workers are forced to crowd together to keep pace with faster processing speeds,” UFCW noted in the release.
Tyson Foods did not respond to a request for comment, but the company has previously said worker safety is the company’s top priority.
The plaintiffs argue that the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) waiver program should be set aside and 10 active waivers should be voided. The lawsuit alleges 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.”
Poultry companies like Tyson Foods and Wayne Foods rely on USDA oversight within their operations. Tyson has said it went above and beyond the required protocol to keep its workers safe and still remain open to meet consumer demand. Meat processing plants also fall under an executive order by President Donald Trump in late April that requires the plants to remain open. The Defense Protection Act also gives the companies some protection against lawsuits if they follow USDA operating guidelines.
Poultry workers and meatpackers have seen a higher than average COVID-19 infection rate. More than 16,200 meat plant workers tested positive for the virus by the end of May and 86 died, according to a CDC report that collected data from more than 20 states.
Tyson Foods tests all of its employees and in plants and has closed several locations when high numbers of cases were found. The plants remained closed for two weeks and were sanitized and cleaned according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocol before reopening.
Tyson Foods executives have said line speeds at plants typically run slower than normal, partly because of increased absenteeism among its workforce for those who opted to remain home and those quarantined after testing positive. The National Chicken Council has said poultry companies rely on USDA for oversight of line speeds which can vary from line to line and plant to plant.
UFCW Local 1539 Union President Leon Sheppard Jr. of Tennessee said union members urged the USDA to consider how dangerous line speed increases are in the midst of COVID-19, but it fell upon deaf ears.
“We had no choice but to go to court to stop these waivers that are endangering the health and livelihoods of thousands of UFCW members across the country. Our members, who have worked in the industry for years, know firsthand that these line speed increases make both the food they make and the plants they work in less safe. It’s time for the USDA to listen to workers who are the first-hand experts in these plants every day, instead of big corporations just looking to make even more money during this pandemic.”
Nandan Joshi, lead counsel in the suit, said USDA must follow procedures when adopting a new program and it failed to do so when deciding to allow more poultry plants to exceed the agency’s regulatory line speed limits.