Speed kills: the impact of slaughter line speeds on worker safety and animal welfare in Canada
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, slaughterhouses have been at the epicentre of disease transmission. One of the largest recorded outbreaks in North America was at Cargill’s High River plant in Alberta, where 949 employees tested positive for COVID‑19 and two employees died. Rather than acting swiftly to protect workers by slowing line speeds or halting operation altogether, many slaughterhouses have been accused of ignoring physical distancing protocols and even ramping up production. Some of the largest meatpacking companies in the world are on record as having lobbied government officials to avoid shutdowns related to the spread of the virus. Although public health authorities have not released official numbers, media reports suggest that over 3,260 workers in the meat processing sector in Canada have contracted the disease and 8 people have died.
COVID‑19 outbreaks in slaughterhouses are linked to high-speed production lines that require employees to work elbow-to-elbow and that make physical distancing difficult. Speed is central to modern methods of meat production. Slaughterhouses are designed to disassemble thousands of animals daily into food as quickly and cheaply as possible. Line speed reductions cut into profit margins. Moreover, in an industry that is increasingly concentrated (e.g., Cargill’s High River facility processes 40% of beef produced in Canada), reductions can seriously disrupt the supply chain causing financial hardship for producers who are unable to find alternate facilities to process their animals. However, despite the financial cost of slowing production lines, there are also social costs to maintaining speeds at current levels. These predate but have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
This project submits the regulation of slaughter line speeds to ethical scrutiny. Line speed has received virtually no attention in legal scholarship in Canada. Viewed as technocratic decisions for regulatory food safety scientists rather than complex ethical policy decisions, maximum speed criteria are rarely questioned by jurists. Although scholarly consideration has been given to the occupational health and safety risks of working in a slaughterhouse, the novelty of this project is that it brings previously separate spheres of regulatory decision-making (food safety, animal welfare, worker safety) into dialogue. Drawing on data gathered during interviews with federal food safety inspectors, veterinary inspectors and union representatives in the meatpacking sector, the project will analyze how line speed conditions shape the experiences of the workers and animals who coexist on the kill floor. More specifically, it will study whether food safety regulations that govern line speeds and the inspectors who enforce them unwittingly contribute to increased risks for workers and animals.
This project is part of the researcher’s broader agenda to contribute to the development of a policy-oriented theory of food law and policy that reverses past trends of governing food systems in silos. By exploring different regulatory points of entry in one specific sector of the agrifood sector, this project is a case study for thinking about overcoming fragmentation in food system governance and reflecting on the design of more just food post-pandemic food systems.