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USDA announces final rule to eliminate pork-processing line speeds

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Washington — A controversial U.S. Department of Agriculture final rule unveiled Sept. 17 removes maximum line speeds in pork-processing plants and transfers certain inspection responsibilities to plant workers.

Under the rule, slated to take effect 60 days after publication in the Federal Register, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service will establish an optional New Swine Slaughter Inspection System that revokes the current maximum line speed of 1,106 hogs per hour at participating processing plants.

Additionally, the new rule will require all establishments to create written sanitary dressing plans and develop process control for intestinal pathogens that may trigger foodborne illnesses. USDA would maintain full charge of carcass inspections and animal preslaughter examinations while retaining “the ability to slow or stop the (processing) line, as needed.”

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue claims the regulation will help modernize the production process.

“This regulatory change allows us to ensure food safety while eliminating outdated rules and allowing for companies to innovate,” Perdue said in a Sept. 17 press release. “The final rule is the culmination of a science-based and data-driven rulemaking process which builds on the food safety improvements made in 1997, when USDA introduced a system of preventive controls for industry. With this rule, FSIS will finally begin full implementation of that program in swine establishments.”

USDA’s announcement comes amid ongoing concerns regarding worker and food safety raised by advocacy groups as well as lawmakers. In June, multiple media outlets obtained a letter confirming the USDA Office of Inspector General’s intent to investigate the effectiveness and integrity of the procedures USDA used to develop and advance a proposed rule, published Feb. 1, 2018, to eliminate maximum line speeds in pork-processing plants.

Responding to concerns posed by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), the letter from USDA Inspector General Phyllis Fong – dated June 21 and addressed to Durbin and 15 fellow members of Congress – outlines OIG’s intended objective to determine whether FSIS:

  • Complied with public transparency requirements under Executive Order 13563.
  • Adhered to USDA Data Quality Guidelines in developing the proposed rule.
  • Reached a reasonable determination about the reliability of the OSHA injury data used for the proposed rule.
  • Consulted with OSHA and NIOSH about the impact of the proposed regulation on workplace safety and health.
  • Made information about its preliminary analysis on worker safety clearly accessible to the public during the comment period.

In a Sept. 17 press release, Sarah Sorscher, deputy director of regulatory affairs at watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest, urged Congress to “block implementation of the final rule until that investigation is complete and the agency has identified adequate measures to prevent the rule from negatively impacting food safety, worker health and animal welfare.”

Reacting to the White House Office of Management and Budget’s completion of its review of the final rule on Sept. 13, Debbie Berkowitz, director of workplace health and safety programs at the National Employment Law Project, tweeted the next day that “Big meat won.”

“[The White House] just cleared the USDA’s radical rule privatizing food safety inspections and allowing dangerous increases in slaughterhouse factory line speeds – injuring workers,” wrote Berkowitz, whose organization also questioned the validity of USDA’s analysis. “Stunning that OMB cleared the rule when there are ongoing [inspector general] investigations.”

This month, a study from Human Rights Watch cited OSHA data showing that “a worker in the meat and poultry industry lost a body part or was sent to the hospital for in-patient treatment about every other day between 2015 and 2018.”

HRW interviewed 49 current and former workers in meat- and poultry-processing plants for the study. Ignacio Davalos, a worker at a pork-processing plant in Crete, NE, said faster line speeds will only increase the demand during hazardous work. “We’ve already gone from the line of exhaustion to the line of pain,” Davalos told HRW. “When we’re dead and buried, our bones will keep hurting.”

 

Supporters of the final rule include National Pork Producers Council President David Herring, who echoes Perdue’s sentiments about its impact on industry advancement.

“We applaud the USDA for introducing a new inspection system that incentivizes investment in new technologies while ensuring a safe supply of wholesome American pork,” Herring said in a Sept. 17 press release. “The U.S. pork production system is the envy of the world because we continuously adopt new practices and technologies, while enhancing safety, quality and consistency. This new inspection system codifies the advancements we have made into law, reflecting a 21st century industry.”

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