Everything I know about “line speeds,” I learned late last year in the Netherlands by spending an afternoon inside the VanDrie Group’s vast veal slaughter and processing facilities.

With a group of international journalists, I visited every nook and cranny in the plant while it was under full operation. As we moved one after another, almost always above was the line moving the veal from slaughter to the various processing units.

Sometimes as we moved along, we had to step through the line, quickly judging its movement so we passed through without incident. Sometimes, the line speed increased, usually because the product was going between various areas.

And sometimes, VanDrie employees could slow and almost stop product on the line, before sending it down to an alternative location. VanDrie turns out veal, not market hogs, though,

But it left me thinking that the popular depiction in the United States of “line speeds” without limits is probably a bit of a red herring.  Easier I know to visit a plant constantly moving product by chain than to work in one, but we also observed VanDrie workers up close. They took items on and off the line with great skill. Never was the out-of-control, or slipping by someone too fast.

When I hear someone speak of a line speed without limits, I no longer think of one of those carnival swings with someone trapped on board and stuck on the highest speed.

Anyway, there is something of a last stand going on with the U.S. unions representing our friends the meat inspectors. They want to stop the New Swine Inspection System (NSIS).    That train left the station on Dec.2, and its poultry cousin has been in effect since 2014.   After 25 years of discussion, swine and poultry companies have options to traditional inspection programs.

Unions sued over the pilot program 25 years ago and that mixed things up pretty thoroughly,  They sued again when the Obama Administration enacted the new poultry rule. That case was dismissed. There’s now six years of history for the new poultry system.  Now the Trump Administration has adopted the swine end of the bookend and the unions have again gone to court.

They hope to wrap two issues around the axle of the New Swine Inspection System (NSIS): line speed and an alleged 40 percent cut in line inspectors.

The second of those arguments are not likely to last long in federal court. NSIS at its heart shifts some inspection time from being “online” to “offline,” meaning inspectors will have responsibilities involving such activities as HACCP and Sanitation.  FSIS personnel continue to conduct ante and post mortem inspections.

Facts over the years have not been able to knock down the “unlimited line speed” argument. NSIS does not come with set line speed. But during years when it operated as a pilot program, line speeds remained kind of a yawner.

Pilot line speeds varied from 885 to 1,295 hogs per hour, with an average of 1,099 head per hour, which is less than the maximum under the traditional inspection system of 1,106 head per hour. Not much of an issue in reality, but it can sound really scary.

That because unlimited line speeds are associated with jobs that may cause repetitive muscle damage. Some opponents paint the picture of out of control machines running at such speeds they injure workers.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, better known as OSHA, is all over meat and poultry operations, and there are a couple of problems with the line speed fear. One is that the attention that been given to these repetitive muscle injuries has them trending down. And second, there is no data to support the notion that working under the new inspection system would be more harmful than the old.

Numerous factors go into the line speed — equipment, animal size, herd conditions, and the number of employees on the job. Even an individual day’s pork production may a role.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) says it does not have either the authority or expertise to regulate the worker safety concerns that may be raised by line speeds. It does cooperate with OSHA, which does have those responsibilities. Line speeds do have a limit, it’s just one that management needs to figure out on any given day by taking multiple factors into account. The fact that years of data without speed limits produced such a narrow range should say something.

One thing I do know is these lines are preferable to having people carry all that product from slaughter to processing to shipping. You’d be really worn out if you did that.

A federal judge in St. Paul, MN, is scheduled to hear arguments on Jan. 27 over a motion to dismiss the union’s lawsuit.

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