The US government is accelerating controversial regulatory rollbacks to speed up production at meat plants, as companies express growing alarm at the impact of Covid-19 on their operations.

Last week Smithfield shut down one of the largest pork plants in the country after hundreds of employees contracted the coronavirus. The plant in South Dakota – whose output represents 4-5% of US pork production – is reported to be the largest single-source coronavirus hotspot in the US, with more than 600 cases. In response, the company said it was “critical” for the meat industry to “continue to operate unabated”.

Now it has emerged that as a wave of plants announce closures, US meat plants are being granted permission to increase the speed of their production lines. This comes despite warnings that the waivers for higher speeds on slaughter and processing lines will compromise food safety.

The latest line speed increases, announced by the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) mean 11 poultry plants have been given waivers to operate higher line speeds in the past fortnight. A number of beef and pork plants have also been given waivers, including a beef plant in Kansas in late March. The move will allow the additional chicken factories to slaughter as many as 175 birds a minute – the equivalent of 3 per second.

A union representing federal food safety inspectors has said faster lines will make it harder to catch “pathology that shouldn’t be going out to the consumers”.

“There is no way that food safety is not compromised when the sole trained government inspector on the slaughter line in a chicken plant is expected to examine three birds every second,” said Tony Corbo, senior government affairs representative at Food & Water Watch. “The US government has stepped on the accelerator to grant these waivers while everyone is concentrating on the Covid-19 epidemic.”

A spokesperson for the FSIS accused campaigners of “spreading fear among the American public”. “The agency’s decisions [on granting line speed waiver requests] are based on data gathered under the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP)-based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) pilot study. The 20-year pilot showed that online inspectors in HIMP young chicken establishments were able to conduct an effective online inspection of each carcass when operating at a line speed of up to 175 bpm and that HIMP establishments were able to control for pathogens at the line speeds authorized under HIMP.”

Increased line speeds are supported by the poultry industry, which argues they do not represent additional risk to food or workers safety, and are necessary to remain financially competitive. Three years ago the National Chicken Council lobbied the government to scrap line speed limits completely, calling them “arbitrary”.

Under traditional poultry processing rules, line speeds ran at 140 birds a minute, and required at least four inspectors to be stationed on each line, tasked with checking carcasses for defects, disease or contamination, including fecal matter which can cause salmonella. That has since been reduced to one inspector per line, with individual regulatory waivers enabling line speed increases.

“It potentially reduces some of the quality control efforts, but I am not concerned about worker safety as a result of the increased line speeds. Some plants are actually reducing speeds because of employee absenteeism,” said Adam Speck, a senior commodity analyst at IHS Markit’s Agribusiness Intelligence.

The line speed increases come as Guardian data analysis reveals that at least one in 10 US poultry slaughterhouses failed government salmonella tests last year. In some categories, failure rates are as high as 34%.

Targets to reduce salmonella disease outbreaks have also been missed, with a rise of 9% in the incidence rate over the last three years according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Campaigners have filed a petition with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), demanding that it declare certain types of salmonella in meat products adulterants (meaning producers have an obligation to withhold contaminated batches), because they “constitute an imminent threat to public health necessitating prompt agency action”.

“We’ve been playing around with these standards for 20 years now,” said Corbo, one of the parties to the petition, “and it doesn’t seem to be working in terms of reducing the amount of food-borne illness in this country. People are getting sick from our poultry production system, and we think that is a public health emergency.”

The FSIS has made attempts to bring down salmonella levels and reduce food-borne illness. The FSIS pointed out to the Guardian that the number of establishments in category three [it has a rating system to encourage improvement] has been halved since 2017. But a Guardian analysis of the FSIS’s reports for the last year shows that for chicken carcass plants, an average 11.8% of inspected plants still failed the standard.

In 2011, when the FSIS set a target to reduce food-borne illness, the incidence level for salmonella was estimated at around 16.4 people per 100,000. The FSIS’s plan aimed to reduce that number to 11.4 by this year, but instead, after a small decline over five years, it has now risen to 18.3, according to a CDC spokesperson.

Outbreak numbers are rising too. A report by US consumer organisation PIRG found that meat and poultry recalls are up by 65% since 2013. Meanwhile a report by the CDC highlighted the rise in antibiotic-resistant salmonella as a serious threat that requires “prompt and sustained action”.

Workers process chickens at a plant in Fremont, US

A spokesperson for the Chicken Council disagreed with criticisms of the sector. He told the Guardian: “No one wants to reduce salmonella more than the companies producing our food. Our families eat the same chicken.” The council opposes the petition, he stated. “We agree with FSIS, and previous court rulings, that a science-based, multitiered approach aimed at reducing all salmonella on raw meat and poultry products results in a more appropriate and effective use of agency resources compared to a separate and specific focus on specific individual strains.”

Campaigners say the FSIS is limited in its ability to keep US meat and poultry healthy. A critical report on the FSIS by the US Government Accountability Office in 2018 stated that a review of data had shown that “some plants are still not meeting pathogen standards – in some cases repeatedly not meeting the standards – and are allowed to operate”. It also pointed out that the agency still had no mandatory recall authority.

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