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USDA to halt elimination of pork-processing line speed limits

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Washington — The U.S. Department of Agriculture has indicated it will accept a March ruling of the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota that prohibits the removal of maximum line speeds in pork-processing plants.

“The agency is committed to worker safety and ensuring a safe, reliable food supply,” USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service said in a May 26 press release. “We will work with the establishments to comply with the court’s ruling and minimize disruptions to the supply chain.”

A coalition consisting of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, three local affiliate unions, and watchdog group Public Citizen in October 2019 filed a lawsuit against USDA challenging a controversial agency final rule that established an optional New Swine Slaughter Inspection System.

Published in the Oct. 1, 2019, Federal Register and effective Dec. 2, 2019, the rule revoked the current maximum line speed of 1,106 hogs an hour at participating processing plants. On March 31, the court ruled that FSIS neglected to adequately consider worker safety during the rulemaking process – a violation of the Administrative Procedures Act of 1946. The court vacated the provision eliminating line speed limits but did “not set aside any other aspect” of the rule, which requires all processing plants to establish written sanitary dressing plans and develop process control for intestinal pathogens that may trigger foodborne illnesses.

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.”

In the release, USDA says establishments operating under NSIS should plan to return to maximum line speeds of 1,106 hogs an hour effective June 30.

In a separate release, UFCW International President Marc Perrone praised the Biden administration for “reaffirming its commitment to worker safety” by electing to comply with the ruling.

 

“The court recognized that the USDA must consider worker safety, and it is well known that dangerous production speeds increase the risks of injury to workers,” Perrone said. “UFCW is calling on CEOs across the pork industry to work with the USDA to slow their line speeds. The safety of America’s frontline food workers must never again take a back seat to corporate profits.”

The National Pork Producers Council, a proponent of the final rule, claims the court’s decision will compromise industry advancement. “NPPC is urging USDA to appeal the ruling; seek a stay while the appeal is considered; and request the agency pursue a new, fast-tracked rulemaking that better reflects the modern processing plant technologies and practices and allows for higher line speeds,” the organization says in a press release.

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