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USDA extends line speed trial at pork-processing facilities

Swine modernization
Photo: United States Department of Agriculture

Washington — A trial that allows select pork-processing facilities to operate at increased line speeds will continue, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service says.

According to an FSIS constituent update issued March 3, the extension to Nov. 30 will allow worker safety experts to finalize a report that measures “the impact of increased line speeds on establishment workers” and help the agency determine future actions.

USDA previously indicated that it had accepted a March 2021 ruling of the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota that prohibits the removal of maximum line speeds in pork-processing plants. 

Later that year, however, USDA initiated a “time-limited” trial permitting facilities participating in USDA’s optional New Swine Slaughter Inspection System to apply to operate faster than the current maximum line speed of 1,106 hogs an hour. The agency granted approval to its first NSIS establishment in March 2022.

USDA said participating facilities must enact worker safety measures included in an agreement with the workers’ union or a worker safety committee representing employees.

FSIS established the NSIS in a 2019 final rule that revoked the current maximum line speed at participating processing plants. Shortly after the 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 challenging the rule.

The Minnesota court ruled that FSIS neglected to consider worker safety during the rulemaking process – a violation of the Administrative Procedure Act of 1946. A USDA Office of Inspector General report published in June 2020 concluded that USDA “did not take adequate steps to determine whether the worker safety data it used … were reliable” when proposing the rule.

In February of this year, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Rep. Brad Finstad (R-MN) and other pork-industry supporters in Congress wrote a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack calling on him to “take immediate action” on issuing a trial extension and pushing for a “permanent solution.”

A statement from the National Pork Producers Council “applauds USDA’s decision to allow eligible pork harvest facilities to continue experimenting with ergonomics, automation, and crewing while maintaining line speeds that have been proven able to protect food and worker safety for over two decades.”

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