MINNEAPOLIS -- The coronavirus began to spread through U.S. slaughterhouses this spring just when workers, already performing some of the most dangerous jobs anywhere, were being asked to take more risks by going faster.
Even as the outbreak began to force plants to temporarily close last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture continued granting permission to chicken processors to boost speeds by 25% on production lines. And the agency late last year approved an inspection system that would let pork plants abolish line-speed limits -- now set at 1,106 hogs an hour -- altogether.
With production reduced at many pork and chicken plants by the outbreak, there's new scrutiny on the safety and procedures in them, including the line-speed changes that have been decades in the making.
"It was bad policy to begin with, but now I think it is irresponsible to do it -- this is an infectious disease," said Celeste Monforton, an occupational health and safety expert at Texas State University.
"Line speeds have an impact on how close the workers have to be," she said. "You get to the point where you have to have more people on the line to keep up. And workers are already really close together."
Companies and worker-safety advocates have long fought over proposals to increase line speeds, and the USDA's primary concern in the matter is food safety, not worker safety.
Around 2000, the agency launched pilot programs to test new ways for the Food Safety and Inspection Service to oversee plants.
Meatpacking firms got to boost output, and the USDA shifted some basic inspection to company employees, arguing federal meat inspectors would be better deployed conducting lab tests and other "offline" inspection.
Eyeballing hunks of meat as they zip by on the line is not as important today as it was in the past, said Bill James, the former chief public health veterinarian at the USDA who helped craft the new inspection systems.
"The overwhelming cause of food-borne illness today is bacteria that we cannot see no matter how hard we look with the naked eye," James said.