Federal agencies Food Manufacturing

Court puts the brakes on USDA elimination of pork-processing line speed limits

Photo: Salomonus_/iStockphoto

Minneapolis — The U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota upheld a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture on March 31, ruling that a controversial final rule that removes line speeds in pork-processing plants and transfers certain inspection responsibilities to plant workers compromises worker health and consumer welfare.

A coalition consisting of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, three local affiliate unions, and watchdog group Public Citizen filed the suit in October 2019.

The court ruled that USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service violated the Administrative Procedures Act, as it “failed to satisfy the APA’s requirement of reasoned decision-making” by neglecting to adequately consider worker safety concerns while assessing a line speed increase. Although the court will vacate the provision eliminating line speed limits, it “will not set aside any other aspect” of the rule.

In a report released June 25, the USDA Office of Inspector General concluded that USDA – during the rulemaking process – “did not take adequate steps to determine whether the worker safety data it used … were reliable.”

USDA published a proposed rule in the Feb. 1, 2018, Federal Register. Under the final rule – published in the Oct. 1, 2019, Federal Register and effective Dec. 2, 2019 – FSIS established 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 rule requires all plants to establish written sanitary dressing plans and develop process control for intestinal pathogens that may trigger foodborne illnesses. USDA retains full charge of carcass inspections and animal preslaughter examinations while maintaining “the ability to slow or stop the (processing) line, as needed.”

The court granted a 90-day stay on its order and entry of judgment in the case to “allow the agency to decide how to proceed in light of this opinion and give regulated entities time to prepare for any operational change,” the ruling states.

“The administration is deeply committed to worker safety and a safe, reliable food supply,” a USDA spokesperson said in a statement. “This is an important decision and we are reviewing it closely in light of the authorities, mission and mandate of the Food Safety and Inspection Service.”


In a press release, UFCW International President Marc Perrone called the ruling “a victory” for America’s essential workers who have “put their health and safety at risk every day during this pandemic to help families put food on the table.”

Adam Pulver, an attorney for Public Citizen, echoed that sentiment.

“The court’s decision recognized that (former President Donald) Trump’s USDA violated basic principles of administrative law when it refused to consider the impact of its actions on plant workers and claimed, contrary to its long-standing practice, that it was not allowed to do so,” Pulver said in the release. “An agency can’t put its hands over its ears and refuse to consider facts that cut against its policy preferences, as USDA did here in ignoring workers and public health advocates and blindly following industry’s wishes.”

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