State AGs Oppose Swine Slaughter Rule

OMAHA (DTN) -- Attorneys general in seven states and two agriculture groups will be allowed to file amicus briefs in a lawsuit challenging a USDA rule that eliminated line-speed limits at swine slaughter facilities.

On Oct. 1, 2019, the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service finalized a rule that cut the number of federal inspectors at swine plants by 40% and eliminated line-speed limits.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union filed a lawsuit on Oct. 7, 2019, asking the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota to set aside the rule. The plaintiff claims USDA did not consider safety issues and risks for line workers.

The court on Tuesday issued an order allowing the attorneys general of Minnesota, California, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan and Virginia to file a brief in support of a motion for summary judgment filed by the workers union.

In addition, the court will allow the National Pork Producers Council and the North American Meat Institute to file a brief in support of the USDA's motion for summary judgment.

The court is scheduled to hear both parties' motions for summary judgment on Oct. 13.

Summary judgment is entered by a court for one party and against another, without a full trial. A judgment may be issued on the merits of an entire case, or on specific issues.

"USDA's failure to consider overwhelming record evidence that indicates that faster line speeds subject workers to substantially increased risk of injury was arbitrary and capricious," the lawsuit alleges.

"By eliminating limits on line speeds while failing to consider an important aspect of the problem, USDA did not engage in reasoned decision making."

In addition, the workers union said USDA did not provide "an adequate rationale" for a decision to reduce the number of federal inspectors in swine processing facilities by 40%.

"As thousands of commenters told USDA during the rulemaking process, the rule will jeopardize the lives and safety of both consumers of pork products and workers like plaintiffs' members," the lawsuit said.

"The Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that meatpacking workers suffer injuries and illnesses at a rate that is 2.3 times higher than the average for all private industries. They suffer occupational illnesses alone at a rate that is more than 17 times higher than the national average for all industries, public and private."

As meatpacking and poultry plants have been forced to remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic, a USDA waiver program implemented in 2018 allowing poultry plants to operate at higher line speeds is putting workers in jeopardy, a new lawsuit filed in federal appeals court Tuesday alleges.

Back in August, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union asked a federal appeals court to set aside a USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service waiver program for poultry processors. The program has granted waivers at 10 plants where union employees work. The waivers allow recipients to step up line speeds from 140 to 175 birds per minute (bpm).

The five local union plaintiffs in that lawsuit represent about 35,000 workers at processing plants in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Indiana, Mississippi and Missouri.

The lawsuit said the waiver program has permitted nearly 43% of all plants, subject to the regulation, to operate at a line speed of 175 bpm.

The lawsuit said line speed has been identified as a contributing factor in "high injury rates" suffered by poultry workers.

In September 2017, the National Chicken Council petitioned FSIS to waive the maximum line-speed regulation for new poultry inspection system plants, which house young chicken and turkeys.

To date, FSIS has granted new line-speed waivers to 35 chicken processing plants. In total, 53 of the 124 new poultry inspection system chicken processing plants currently are authorized to operate lines at 175 bpm.

Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @toddneeleyDTN

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