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.

Testing the concept

Twenty poultry plants participated in one USDA pilot of line-speed increases and five hog slaughterhouses in another. One of those was Quality Pork Processors Inc., in Austin, Minn., which supplies meat to an adjacent Hormel Foods plant. The pilot hog plants had no maximum line speed limit, though the USDA maintains their average kill rate was a tad below the 1,106 mark.

The line speed at Quality Pork now stands at 1,300-plus hogs slaughtered per hour on average, said Richard Morgan, president of UFCW Local 9, which represents the plant's workers.

With faster lines, more people are needed so workers don't end up injured. "I'm not saying we haven't had our screaming matches back and forth, but every time [Quality Pork] has increased the line speed, they have added more workers," Morgan said.

The USDA has said it expects 40 "high-volume" hog plants representing 93% of the pork industry's capacity to eventually adopt the new system.

The United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) believes the big JBS hog slaughterhouse in Worthington, the site of Minnesota's largest workplace outbreak of the coronavirus, will be one of them.

The union filed suit in Minneapolis last fall to stop the USDA, saying it didn't consider an "overwhelming record" that faster line speeds put workers at more risk of injury. JBS added coolers and expanded the kill floor and loading docks in Worthington, allowing it to increase line speed, the union said in the suit.

JBS said it does not intend to adopt the new inspection system in Worthington, but it declined to discuss the plant's line speed.

Meat and poultry packers say there's no conclusive evidence connecting higher line speeds and the spread of the coronavirus among workers.

At the JBS plant in Worthington, 680 of the plant's 2,200 workers had tested positive for COVID-19 by the end of last week. One 66-year-old worker died in early May after contracting the virus.

In Quality Pork's case, the slaughter plant in Austin and the Hormel factory next door each have had about a dozen confirmed cases of COVID-19, Morgan said.

David Michaels, a public health professor at George Washington University and head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration from 2009 to 2017, said faster lines mean workers must be closer together, making them more susceptible to the virus. "The USDA is helping the meat industry turn their processing plants into human sacrifice zones," he said.

The National Chicken Council said faster line speeds in chicken plants don't lead to workers being closer together since key parts of those plants are heavily automated.

James, the former USDA veterinarian, said he thinks line speeds would have relatively less effect on illnesses than other conditions.

"Workers are close together in the changing rooms, they're close together in the lunch room," James said. "The plants are doing their best, but the bottom line is this is a labor-intensive industry."

A USDA spokesman said no data supports the notion that faster lines have led to COVID-19 cases.

As for pork processors' plans to adopt the new USDA line speed rules, "It's hard to tell if COVID would make them pause," Sarah Little, spokeswoman for the North American Meat Institute, said. "The pandemic doesn't judge based on plant size or line speed."

Meatpackers that were idled by COVID-19 outbreaks last month have reopened with fewer workers and slower lines.

The nation's hog slaughterhouses were running about 80% of capacity last week. The JBS plant in Worthington ran at 75% "due to our policy of removing vulnerable populations, including anyone 60 years of age or older" and other measures, a company spokesman said.

Meanwhile, the USDA on March 20 stopped accepting new applications for increasing the line speeds at chicken plants. Its new poultry regulatory framework was rolled out in 2014, well before the swine plan, but with a key difference.

It restricted line speeds to 140 chickens per minute, even though the pilot program tested a pace of 175 birds per minute. In late 2018, the USDA began allowing the higher speed through waivers to plants; more than 30 have been granted, including 15 last month.

Pilgrim's Pride, which is majority-owned by JBS, appears to have several chicken plants authorized to operate at 175 birds per minute, USDA records indicate. The Pilgrim's Pride plant in Cold Spring — site of Minnesota's second-largest workplace COVID-19 outbreak, involving 221 workers through last week — is not among them.

Repetition unrelenting

Animal slaughtering, not including poultry, had the second highest incidence of nonfatal occupational illness in 2018 after light-truck manufacturing, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Turkey processing was 14th.

In Minnesota, there were 65 occupational illnesses per 10,000 workers among animal slaughtering and processing workers in 2018, compared with 12 for all private industry.

Rotator cuff injuries, tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome are common. Those are repetitive-motion injuries that are only aggravated by faster line speeds, said Monforton, the safety expert at Texas State.

"The number one concern workers have, and the number one reason they attribute to the types of injuries they have, is the speed of the line," she said. "They work at a relentless pace."

Staff writer Jennifer Bjorhus contributed to this report.

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003

Adam Belz • 612-673-4405