Food Manufacturing Federal agencies

Labor unions sue USDA over final rule that eliminates pork-processing line speeds

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Minneapolis — A coalition consisting of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, three local affiliate unions and watchdog group Public Citizen is suing the U.S. Department of Agriculture over a controversial final rule that removes maximum line speeds in pork-processing plants and transfers certain inspection responsibilities to plant workers.

The groups, which filed a joint complaint Oct. 7 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, allege that the rule compromises worker health and consumer welfare.

Under the rule – published in the Oct. 1 Federal Register and effective Dec. 2 – 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.

Further, the 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 retain full charge of carcass inspections and animal preslaughter examinations while maintaining “the ability to slow or stop the (processing) line, as needed.”

In a Sept. 17 press release, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue claims the regulation will help modernize the production process. The rule announcement came amid ongoing concerns regarding worker and food safety raised by advocacy groups as well as lawmakers.

The lawsuit claims that “thousands of commenters” expressed uneasiness during the rulemaking process.

“In issuing the rule, USDA did not dispute the massive amount of evidence in the record showing that eliminating maximum line speeds would put the life and safety of thousands of workers at risk,” the lawsuit states. “Rather, its sole response was to state that USDA lacks ‘authority’ to ‘regulate issues related to establishment worker safety.’”

 

The lawsuit also claims that USDA failed to comply with the “reasoned decision-making” mandated under the Administrative Procedure Act. 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 its proposal to eliminate maximum line speeds.

Responding to concerns posed by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), USDA Inspector General Phyllis Fong outlines in the letter 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 to develop 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.

“There are two basic principles of administrative law: agencies cannot simply refuse to address concerns about the impacts of their actions, and they must acknowledge and explain when they change their positions,” Adam Pulver, an attorney for Public Citizen, said in an Oct. 7 press release. “By refusing to even discuss the mountains of evidence showing that faster line speeds will put workers’ health at risk, after acknowledging the importance of considering worker safety in its proposed rule, the USDA broke these two bedrock rules.”

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