- Line speeds at U.S. pork plants will be slowing down after a federal judge ruled the U.S. Department of Agriculture's removal of processing speed limits did not adequately take worker safety into consideration. The ruling was filed on March 31, and USDA was given 90 days — until the end of June — to rework the regulations.
- USDA has notified pork processors that they should prepare to process no more than 1,106 hogs an hour as a result of this ruling — the processing speed limit prior to rule revamps in 2019, The Wall Street Journal reported and USDA confirmed to Food Dive. No official changes to the rule have been published in the Federal Register or promoted on USDA's website.
- Faster line speeds for both pork and chicken processing lines were allowed under the Trump administration, but those rules have been rolled back. Days after his inauguration, President Joe Biden withdrew a proposed rule that would have allowed poultry line speeds to increase by 25%. The Biden administration also indicated it would be reviewing the rule allowing faster line speeds at pork plants.
Considering the Biden administration's stance on line speeds, it's not surprising that the Trump-era rule will no longer be in effect. Even as a candidate, Biden spoke out against faster processing rates for cattle, pigs and chickens. He cited the pandemic, social distancing protocols and health risks for workers as reasons to slow the lines down.
The judge's ruling in this case hinges on the issue of worker safety. When the rule eliminating line speed limits was first proposed, USDA specifically sought and received comments about how it would impact worker safety. The ruling details reports of issues with hanging heavy carcasses on lines, workers being prone to cutting themselves by mistake, pain in shoulders and arms from faster and more repetitive motions, and workers inadvertently bumping into one another. A United Food and Commercial Workers member referenced in the ruling told the court that as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the plant where he worked, the lines did not slow and more workers were not hired. The same workers still had to work faster.
"Line speeds are a risk factor that will increase the already hazardous conditions faced by workers," U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen wrote in the ruling. "These risks are not merely speculative. They are supported by several academic studies, government research conducted by [the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health], and recommendations provided by [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] and the [Government Accountability Office]. And the evidence of the risks is not merely a statistical possibility. The testimony of UFCW members explains how workers personally experience these risks in the workplace."
While meat trade groups, including the North American Meat Institute, told The Wall Street Journal they want the USDA to appeal the ruling, that is not likely to happen. According to the case docket, pork processor Seaboard Foods has filed to intervene in the case, asking the court to let its attorneys separately argue to further delay the ruling from taking effect. The court has not ruled on this motion.
While Biden could easily withdraw the proposed rule about poultry line speeds, allowing faster pork line speeds was already part of a final rule, which had other implications for the industry. This final rule also reduces the number of federal inspectors in plants, allowing facility employees to monitor compliance. While that portion of the rule is also addressed in this lawsuit, it is not addressed in this most recent ruling. The Biden administration has had no publicized position on it.
Pork processors told The Wall Street Journal this ruling has the potential of leaving them unable to process about 80,000 hogs this year. Since hog supplies are contracted a year in advance, they told the newspaper it could lead to more of a backlog and could also have severe consequences on hog prices.
The ruling on line speeds takes place as demand for pork has increased. In 2020, pork sales in the United States rose as more consumers cooked at home. The U.S. is also one of the top exporters of pork products, meaning it helps meet worldwide demand for the meat. It isn't clear how slowing line speeds will impact the industry as a whole, considering the faster speeds were not being used for long and the COVID-19 pandemic had different adverse effects on the meat industry as a whole. What is clear is that the Biden administration is more likely to train its policy focus on workers rather than profits, meaning future policy is likely to give more deference to employee concerns.