Meat Processors Adopt Robotics, Automation After CCP Virus Shutdowns

Union calls on USDA to reduce processing line speeds
By Alan McDonnell
Alan McDonnell
Alan McDonnell
July 11, 2020Updated: July 12, 2020

U.S. meat processing giants are speeding up efforts to automate their meat-packaging operations, according to robotics industry specialists.

The move comes as meat processors count the costs of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus crisis.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) said that more than 14,000 of its members working at meat packaging plants had contracted or been exposed to the CCP virus, resulting in at least 65 deaths.

The UFCW also said it would support a measure in the House of Representatives —the Safe Line Speeds in COVID-19 Act—to reduce production line speeds in meat factories, and criticized USDA waivers (pdf) to meat processors that allow higher speeds in exchange for sharing internal food safety data.

“America’s meatpacking workers have been on the frontlines of this pandemic since day one, putting themselves in harm’s way to make sure our families have the food we need.” UFCW President Marc Perrone said in a statement. He said action must be taken to reduce line speeds in meat plants “to ensure workers can maintain social distancing and stay safe on the job.”  

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a new poster this week (pdf) that lists safety tips for employers and employees to protect workers in the meatpacking industry from exposure to the CCP virus.

Tyson Foods are workers wearing protective masks
Tyson Foods employees are seen wearing protective masks and standing between plastic dividers at the company’s poultry processing plant in Camilla, Ga., in a file photo. (Tyson Foods/AP)

Cargill Inc. said in a statement that the company has adopted several measures at its North American protein facilities to protect workers against the CCP virus, such as employee temperature measurement, screening measures, face masks, and prohibiting visitors at plants.

Now, companies such as Tyson Foods are striving to replace human workers with machines and robots, spending over $215 million over the past five years on automation and robotics.

A wide range of end-of-line procedures such as packaging, bagging, labeling, box folding and closure, and carton palletizing have been common in the industry for years. Sophisticated sensor-based systems are also available that stop band saws within milliseconds of the operator touching the blade—greatly reducing the risk of serious cuts and amputation.

In addition to virtually eliminating the risk of production stoppages due to viral epidemics, new automation and robotics technologies mean that backbreaking tasks such as boning, cutting, sawing, and hefting animal carcasses could soon be a thing of the past.

Existing technologies such as X-ray systems and high-resolution imaging technologies are being adapted to identify where bones lie in a cut of meat, allowing knives mounted on robot arms to remove the bones with a minimum of waste. Other scanning devices can create 3D models of a joint of meat, for example, ensuring that robot positioning systems can lift and turn heavier joints correctly to allow precise cuts to be made.

Tyson opened its state-of-the-art manufacturing automation center in Springdale, Arkansas, in August 2019 with the aim of developing new manufacturing solutions. The company said the facility would develop advanced automation, robotics, machine learning, and machine vision technologies.

Health & Safety

Worker safety was an issue in the meat processing industry long before the CCP virus came to the United States. According to OSHA, there are many serious safety and health hazards in the U.S. meatpacking industry.

“These hazards include exposure to high noise levels, dangerous equipment, slippery floors, musculoskeletal disorders, and hazardous chemicals,” according to OSHA. “Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) comprise a large part of these serious injuries and continue to be common among meatpacking workers.”

Workers using band saws to cut animal bones also experience a higher risk of amputation.

A 2013 report (pdf) from OSHA stated that the rate of occupational illness in the poultry processing industry in 2011 and 2012 was five times the U.S. industrial average. In addition, the incidence of carpal tunnel syndrome in poultry processing was seven times the national average in 2011.

“Many poultry processing jobs are physically demanding and involve factors that increase the risk of developing an MSD. These factors include repetition, force, awkward and static postures, and vibration,” according to the OSHA report.

JBS Goes Automated

The Australian arm of the world’s largest meat processor, Brazil’s JBS S.A., has a majority shareholding in New Zealand’s Scott Automation, which also owns automation specialist RobotWorx in Marion, Ohio, according to a 2017 report by the Otago Daily Times.

Scott and JBS have worked together to develop highly automated lamb processing systems.

Cargill has developed a robotic driver to move cattle from unloading pens to harvest areas. With automated waving arms and human-voice audio recordings, the driver can operate outside in all weather conditions. The robot is controlled by an employee on a walkway suspended above the pens, increasing animal welfare and employee safety.

Epoch Times Photo
Cargill’s robotic cattle driver (Courtesy of Cargill Inc.)

“The average bovine weighs almost three-quarters of a ton, and our plant processes several thousand head of cattle daily,” said Sammy Renteria, general manager at Cargill’s beef processing plant in Schuyler, Nebraska. “This innovation provides a much safer workplace for our employees and allows them to develop new technology expertise as they manage and operate the robot.”