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USDA pilot program to allow faster line speeds at some pork-processing facilities

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Washington — The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service, in collaboration with OSHA, will allow select pork-processing facilities – on a trial basis – to operate at increased line speeds for up to one year while gathering data that “measures the impact of line speed on workers.”

USDA previously indicated that it had accepted 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. Facilities participating in USDA’s optional New Swine Slaughter Inspection System can apply to participate in the “time-limited” trial, during which establishments will be permitted to operate faster than the current maximum line speed of 1,106 hogs an hour. The facilities, however, must enact worker safety measures included in an agreement with the workers’ union or a worker safety committee representing employees, USDA says.

“The trial will facilitate experimentation with different ergonomics, automation and crewing to design custom work environments that increase productivity and protect food safety while decreasing the probability of worker injuries,” a USDA spokesperson told Safety+Health. “During the trial, participating establishments will collect data that measures the impact of line speed on workers, which will be shared with OSHA and could inform future rulemaking in this area.”

Under a final rule published in the Oct. 1, 2019, Federal Register and effective Dec. 2, 2019, FSIS established the NSIS, which revoked the current maximum line speed at participating processing plants.

Shortly after the controversial final rule was published, a coalition consisting of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, three local affiliate unions, and watchdog group Public Citizen filed a lawsuit against USDA challenging the rule. The Minnesota court later ruled that FSIS neglected to consider worker safety during the rulemaking process, violating the Administrative Procedure Act of 1946.

In a statement, Zach Corrigan, senior staff attorney at environmental group Food & Water Watch, criticizes the Biden administration for “reversing course” on accepting the court decision “with a pilot program that continues to put industry profits over protecting the safety of our food supply.”

 

National Pork Producers Council President Jen Sorenson said in a statement that the organization is “very pleased” with the provisions of the trial.

NPPC cites the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point Inspection Models Project – a 1990s pilot program that allowed lines to run faster than the current limit – as a proven precursor to NSIS that proved “increased line speeds and protecting worker safety” aren’t mutually exclusive.

“We are optimistic that this new program, with OSHA involvement, will result in more pork for consumers without sacrificing worker safety,” Sorenson said.

At press time, the USDA spokesperson said four NSIS facilities had submitted information to participate in the trial. The agency intends to post the names of the approved establishments.

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