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Courier Journal: Kentucky Slaughterhouses Battle the Coronavirus’s Spread Amid Fears of Meat Shortage

April 29, 2020

Note: this article, featuring Government Accountability Project and the Food Integrity Campaign, was originally published here.

Kentucky Slaughterhouses Battle the Coronavirus’s Spread Amid Fears of Meat Shortage

Major meat processors across the country have continued to battle coronavirus hotspots in their plants — including in Kentucky.

Two Western Kentucky poultry plants, each the largest employer in their county, together make up more than a third of the 307 cases now in the seven-county Green River health district.

Both plants — a Tyson plant in Robards, Kentucky, employing more than 1,300 line workers and a Perdue plant in Cromwell employing more than 1,000 others — are working closely with health authorities, but it’s a “very challenging” situation, said Clay Horton, the district’s health department director.

That’s because at plants used to processing 140 birds per minute, workers stand shoulder to shoulder, with few ways to practice social distancing.

“We’re throwing everything we have at it, but it is a significant part of what’s going on in our district,” Horton told The Courier Journal.

Across the U.S., the disease has spread inside at least 66 meatpacking plants, forcing some to close. Most recently, Tyson said it was shuttering pork plants in Iowa and Northern Indiana.

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump told reporters at a White House event that he planned to sign an executive order addressing the issue. The order is expected to invoke the Defense Production Act to keep meat processing plants open and also protect plant owners from liability, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles praised the plans.

“While America’s food supply is safe and abundant, we are seeing bottlenecks at processing facilities and as a result, Americans should be prepared for more limited protein options in the next couple of weeks,” Quarles said in a statement. “President Trump’s decision will help reduce disruption in our food supply chain and better help protect workers.”

In a full-page ad that Tyson took out in some newspapers over the weekend, the company’s chairman, John Tyson, warned that meat shortages and the euthanasia of millions of animals could be on the horizon.

“The food supply chain is breaking,” the ad said.

Describing the responsibility of feeding the country as being “as essential as healthcare,” Tyson said it must remain operational and was striving toward a “delicate balance” that kept worker safety a top priority.

That has meant installing more than 150 infrared walk-through temperature scanners, requiring the use of face coverings at work, stepping up cleaning efforts and implementing social distancing measures, such as installing workstation dividers and providing more break room space, the ad said.

At the same time, however, the federal government granted 15 poultry processors new waivers to cut chickens faster, usually by crowding more workers onto their production lines, according to a joint USA Today and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting investigation.

One of those plants to receive a waiver to process 175 birds per minute — up from 140 per minute — was Tyson’s Robards plant, a spokesman for the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service told The Courier Journal.

The federal government received the request in February and, following its normal process, approved it two months later for reasons totally unrelated to the pandemic, the spokesman said.

Federal inspectors stopped accepting new waiver requests in March.

Line speed waivers have been a long-running point of contention between safety advocates and the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. In February, the Humane Society of the United States, Government Accountability Project and other groups filed a lawsuit challenging plans to increase poultry processing speeds, Bloomberg Law reported.

The pandemic adds a new wrinkle to that fight.

In a letter last week to Vice President Mike Pence, the United Food and Commercial Workers called for an immediate halt on line speed waivers.

“These waivers guarantee more workers are put at risk of either catching or spreading the virus,” wrote the union’s international president Marc Perrone. “The USDA must cease granting any new waivers and suspend all existing waivers that allow plants to operate at faster speeds.”

As of Monday evening, 68 of the Green River health district’s COVID-19 cases were employees at the Tyson plant and eight others were household members or close relatives of them, according to the local health department director.

A Tyson spokeswoman declined to provide specific details about the Robards plant waiver, though a spokesman said it was unlikely the plant implemented its plans to speed up poultry lines there since retooling takes time.

“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,” Tyson spokeswoman Morgan Watchous said in an emailed statement.

On Monday, a spokeswoman for the union representing workers at the Robards Tyson plant — United Food and Commercial Workers Local 227 — praised management there for cooperating with health authorities, but emphasized the importance of keeping production lines temporarily slowed.

“One the most important things that we can do to protect these essential workers producing our food that our families need is to better enforce social distancing where possible,” union spokeswoman Caitlin Blair told The Courier Journal. “And in many cases that means slowing down the lines even if production slows down.”

Blair also reiterated the union’s call, with state Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, for Kentucky to prioritize testing and personal protective equipment for meatpackers. And the union is in talks with Gov. Andy Beshear’s office about extending special child care service benefits to meatpackers, Blair said.