The federal government has handed out a record number of waivers this month for chicken slaughterhouses to dial up the already dangerous speeds at which they kill birds. The development not only raises animal welfare concerns, but it comes at a time when slaughterhouses have emerged as major clusters for the spread of the coronavirus because of their cramped, unsanitary working conditions—conditions that line speed increases will only worsen.

So far in April, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued waivers to 15 chicken slaughterhouses, allowing them to speed up the rate of killing from 140 birds per minute to 175 birds per minute—about three birds per second. This is a significant increase in the waivers issued each month since the new program went into effect in 2018, and it adversely affects millions more animals. In the period between January and March this year, the agency only issued a single waiver.

The USDA's decision came just weeks after a coalition of groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, sued the agency in February for allowing the increase in line speeds. We are concerned because slaughtering animals at this rate increases suffering for birds in their final moments, creates even more dangerous conditions for workers and compromises the health and safety of consumers.

At such high speeds, workers struggling to keep up with the rapidly moving slaughter lines grab the chickens and slam them into shackles, injuring the animals’ fragile legs. Some birds miss the throat-cutting blade and enter the scalder—a tank of extremely hot water—alive and fully conscious, resulting in a terrible death.

In recent weeks, slaughterhouses have also been in the news for their role in exacerbating the coronavirus pandemic. A South Dakota pig slaughterhouse has been linked to nearly 900 cases of the disease, making it the single largest cluster in the entire country. At least 2,700 cases have been tied to 60 meatpacking plants in 23 states, and at least 17 workers in these plants have died. Some slaughterhouses, such as the one in South Dakota and Tyson’s largest U.S. pig slaughterhouse, have finally shuttered their doors, but many remain open even after workers have tested positive for the virus.

The United Food and Commercial Worker International Union has warned that allowing slaughterhouses to speed up guarantees that workers will be more crowded along the meatpacking line, and therefore at greater risk of either catching or spreading the virus.

These slaughterhouses are also dangerous for the communities where they are located. A USA Today analysis found that counties with some of America’s largest beef, pork and poultry processing plants have coronavirus infection rates higher than those in 75% of other U.S. counties.

With all this evidence, it is mindboggling that the USDA is giving out more waivers, choosing to help fatten the bottom lines of corporate interests over animal welfare, food safety and the safety of the agency’s own inspectors and slaughterhouse employees.

Last week, our legal team warned the USDA that we would amend our lawsuit and take steps to seek a quick ruling following the increased waivers, and the agency now appears to have relented slightly. Yesterday, a spokesperson for the USDA told a Bloomberg reporter that it has “stopped accepting additional requests” from chicken slaughterhouses to operate at higher speeds.

But this is not good enough—we are asking that the agency revoke all of the waivers it has already issued. Our federal government should never prioritize industry profits over animal welfare, worker safety and public health, and especially not in the midst of a global pandemic.