Federal Judge Joan N. Ericksen last October held a 64-minute video hearing and then took the line speed case under advisement. Five months later, she has published a 68-page ruling to resume the speed limits on hog slaughter inspection lines.

Ericksen stayed her order in U.S. District Court for Minnesota on speed limits to give USDA an additional 90 days, during which the new administration may wish to change the 2019 policy.   

Specific details of the order for the union Plaintiffs led by the United Food and Commercial Workers and Defendant USDA included these elements:

  • Plaintiffs’ Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 67] on Count 1 of the Complaint is GRANTED IN PART as follows: a. Defendant’s Final Rule, Modernization of Swine Slaughter Inspection, is VACATED only insofar as it eliminates line speed limits under the New Swine Inspection System.
  • Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 87] is DENIED.
  • Defendant’s Motion for Remand Without Vacatur [ECF No. 40] is DENIED.
  • This case is REMANDED to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service for further consideration.
  • This order and entry of judgment, in this case, are STAYED for 90 days.

Under those findings, USDA keeps the New Swine Inspection System (NSIS), but line speed limits are back. That’s a big win for the UFCW and its local unions by the Public Citizen Litigation Group. Those unions represent 33,000 pork processing industry employees.

The judge found USDA’s refusal o consider the impact of eliminating line speeds on employee health and safety to be “arbitrary and capricious” under the federal Administrative Procedures Act. Erickson also does not think slowing the lines will require any additional outlays by the pork industry.

“Based on limits the analysis in the Final Rule, it appears that most of the industry costs incurred will not be forfeited by a vacatur of the line speed limit elimination under the NSIS,” Ericksen wrote. 

“Additionally, as the amici have noted, production slowed because of the COVID- 19 pandemic. It suggests that the NSIS facilities have already adapted to lower speeds, despite expectations that line speeds could increase. Those disruptions have already reduced the economic benefits of increased line speeds and would have occurred regardless of whether the line speed limits were in place.”

The USDA may well go along with slowing market hog lines as it has already reversed course on poultry plant line speeds. It withdrew the rule that would have required poultry line speeds to increase to 175 birds per minute without a waiver, up 25 percent from the current 140 bpm.

The poultry change occurred with the incoming Biden administrative withdrew all rules submitted to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs by the outgoing Trump administration.

Eliminating or increasing line speeds were poultry and swine modernizations that began when Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack served for the Obama-Biden administration. Salvaging what’s left of the modernization programs once hailed by the agency will also fall on Vilsack, who has returned as USDA boss under Biden.

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