The Biden Administration issued a statement noting that it will comply with a federal court ruling eliminating increased line speeds at pork processing plants. The line speeds will be expected to decrease from 1,450 hogs per hour to the previous maximum line speed of 1,106 hogs per hour, reports the Miami Herald.

The USDA’s response, issued on May 26, 2021, states: “On March 31, 2021, the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota vacated a portion of FSIS’ final rule establishing a voluntary “New Swine Slaughter Inspection System” (NSIS). The Court found that FSIS violated the Administrative Procedure Act because it asked for comments on the impact of line speed increases on worker safety in the proposed rule but did not consider these comments in the final rule. The Court vacated the rule only insofar as it eliminated the maximum line speed cap for NSIS establishments. The other provisions of the final rule were not affected by the Court’s decision. 

“The Court stayed the order for 90 days to give the Agency and the impacted plants time to adjust. At this time, establishments operating under NSIS should prepare to revert to a maximum line speed of 1,106 head per hour on June 30, 2021.

“The Agency is committed to worker safety and ensuring a safe, reliable food supply. We will work with the establishments to comply with the Court’s ruling and minimize disruptions to the supply chain.”

The National Pork Producers Council called the decision “disastrous” for small pork producers. The NPPC cited an Iowa State University study that stated the ruling would result in a 2.5 percent loss in pork packing plant capacity. The NSIS was evaluated in a pilot plant program at five pork facilities over a 20-year period and was set to be adopted industry-wide in 2019. NPPC said that the NSIS modernized an inspection system that had remained unchanged for more than 50 years.

“The U.S. pork production system, the most advanced in the world, is characterized by robust competition, innovation and efficiency. With the stroke of a judge’s pen, the lives of many hog farmers will be upended if this misguided ruling takes effect,” said NPPC President Jen Sorenson, communications director for Iowa Select Farms in West Des Moines, Iowa.

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.

United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union, which represents over 250,000 meat industry employees, praised the USDA response.

“President Biden made a commitment to strengthen safety protections for America’s meatpacking workers on the frontlines of this pandemic. With today’s USDA statement, the Biden Administration is reaffirming its commitment to worker safety,” said UFCW International President Marc Perrone. “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.”

Sources: USDA, Miami Herald, NPPC