Senator Cory Booker [D-NJ] has introduced a bill that would safeguard factory farm workers “from unpredictable, high-speed catastrophes.” The bill is co-sponsored by Senators Elizabeth Warren [D-Mass.], Richard Blumenthal [D-Conn.], Dianne Feinstein [D-Calif.] Kamala Harris [D-Calif.] Jeff Merkley [D-Ore.] and Bernie Sanders [I-Vt.].
If passed, the Safe Line Speeds During COVID-19 Act will prohibit meat processing plants and slaughterhouses from operating at high speeds. Facilities that operate at high speeds are often unable to maintain proper social distancing measures.
The Trump administration’s order to allow meatpacking plants to remain open amid the outbreak drew backlash from workers’ unions due to safety concerns. The order granted companies liability protections in the event that employees caught the virus as a result of having to go to work. The government also approved waivers that allow slaughterhouses to increase slaughter line speeds.
Research shows this puts workers at an increased risk of contracting the virus and sustaining injuries. The National Employment Law Project found slaughterhouses that received these waivers had become coronavirus hotspots or had worker safety violations.
Booker notes that since mid-March, coronavirus outbreaks have surged in meatpacking plants across the country. Tens of thousands of workers have contracted the virus; more than 168 have died as a result.
“The majority of these workers are from immigrant communities and communities of color,” Senator Booker said in a press release.
He added: “The USDA should be in the business of prioritizing worker and consumer safety over the profits of large multinational meatpacking corporations, not the other way around. The Safe Line Speeds in COVID-19 Act will rein in the USDA’s reckless oversight by limiting its ability to grant dangerous line speed waivers.”
Booker and Warren Launch Investigation into Meatpacking Plants
In June, Booker and Warren opened an investigation into four major meatpacking plants: Tyson Foods, JBS USA, Cargill, and Smithfield Foods.
They recently released the investigation’s findings. Booker and Warren revealed the four meat corporations manipulated the coronavirus pandemic to operate in an unsafe manner, putting their workers at risk.
“If these companies believe they’re doing everything required of them to protect workers, yet workers continue getting sick and dying, then it’s clear that non-enforceable CDC guidance is not enough,” Warren wrote in a press release.
The senators say the companies also raised meat prices and lobbied President Trump to sign an executive order designating the plants “as critical infrastructure that allowed them to continue operating in an unsafe fashion.”
“Your companies created the conditions that left your workers and the supply chain vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic. But instead of addressing them, you used the prospect of food shortages to secure a federal license to put your workers in harm’s way,” the senators wrote in a letter to the four meat companies.
As a result of the findings, Booker and Warren are urging the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to enforce an Emergency Temporary Standard, or ETS. An ETS would enable OSHA to make and strictly enforce regulations that relate to worker safety during the pandemic.
Booker Introduces Bill to Shut Down Large-Scale Factory Farms
Warren is also co-sponsoring a bill introduced by Booker to shut down large-scale factory farming. California Representative Rohit Khanna is also a co-sponsor.
The Farm System Reform Act put forward by Booker in December aims to transition agriculture away from the factory farming system. Ninety-nine percent of all animal products in the U.S. currently come from factory farms.
By 2040, FSRA aims to phase-out large concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The bill would support smaller farmers by placing an immediate moratorium on new CAFOs and forcing others to stop expanding.
Over a period of 10 years, $100 billion would help CAFO owners transition to more sustainable forms of agriculture.
According to Newsweek, Warren supported the bill following reports of unsafe conditions in the meat industry.
A number of slaughterhouses have closed down earlier this year due to coronavirus outbreaks. Many plant workers have reported unsafe working conditions. A lawsuit was brought against pork giant Smithfield over its failure to protect employees from the virus.
‘A More Sustainable And Humane System’
“For years, regulators looked the other way while giant multinational corporations crushed competition in the agriculture sector and seized control over key markets,” said Warren in a statement. “The COVID-19 crisis will make it easier for Big Ag to get even bigger, gobble up smaller farms, and lead to fewer choices for consumers.”
She added: “We need to attack this consolidation head-on and give workers, farmers, and consumers bargaining power in our farm and food system. I’m glad to partner with Senator Booker and Representative Khanna to start reversing the hyper-concentration in our farm economy.”
CAFOs aren’t just harmful to people, but are detrimental to the environment too. One farm of 5,000 pigs, for example, can produce as much waste as a town of 20,000 people.
“Large factory farms are harmful to rural communities, public health, and the environment,” Booker said in a statement last year. “We must immediately begin to transition to a more sustainable and humane system, such as raising pasture-based livestock, growing specialty crops, or organic commodity production.”