In 2020,   the food and employee safety issue known as line speed became a cause celeb, cited by the union and other activist groups in all sorts of ways.  It seemed to come up in all sorts of venues including congressional legislation.

A federal judge in St. Paul struck down the line-speed provision of the New Swine Inspection System on March 31. It came with a stay (a delay) of 90 days. Lot’s has happened or not happened while that clock has been running down to June 30. The judge framed the issue this way:

“Before hogs reach the evisceration line, they pass through the kill floor where workers gambrel the hogs by cutting and hanging the carcasses. This requires workers to maneuver and lift hog carcasses that weigh approximately 400 pounds. When the evisceration line moves faster, the kill floor workers must keep pace with the line.  These workers state that hog carcasses will sometimes fall from the hooks, injuring workers and that this risk increases as they work at higher speeds.”

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has not ordered an appeal and isn’t likely to do so. Instead,  he wants hog farmers nationwide to comply with the Minnesota court’s order. This is a flip-flop by USDA, including Vilsack.

As pork producers see it, USDA’s “unwillingness to defend” or to show “any indication of an intent to defend” the invalidated line-speed provision is a break with past policy.  Taking line-speed limits away is part of USDA’s modernization program for inspections and it’s been 25 years in the making.

U.S. pork producers hoped Secretary Vilsack would appeal the district court while the 90-day stay was in effect.  Instead, he agreed to turn the line speed maximum back to the legacy limit of 1,106 pigs per hour.

These recent events have major pork producers jumping into the case as intervenors and potentially as shot-callers.

Pork producers insist they’re not seeking NASCAR-like speeds. One involved in USDA’s pilot program reports producing  1,210  hogs per hour, up over the 1,106 limits, while reducing reported injuries.

The USDA inspector-in-charge exercises authority over line speeds, and the new inspection system for swine did not change that.  The North American Meat Institute says the key to line speed safety is adequate staffing.

Vilsack did not come to the assistance of hog farmers, but in effect, threw in the towel on the issue with this statement:

“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.”

Hog farmers believe that a slower maximum speed will cost them millions. “Deep and irreparable harm,” will result, they say. On their own, they’ve appealed to the Eighth U.S. Circuit in St. Louis.

And the lobbying over the issue has been non-stop. USDA named Sandra Eskin as Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety around March 17, just ahead of the court ruling.

According to USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service’s public calendar for April, Eskin held multiple telephonic meetings about the New Swine Inspection System. Included were calls on April 22 and 26 with Seaboard, Triumph Foods, and Wholesome Farms.

Eskin also did calls with Clemens Foods, another intervenor in the case, on April 26. She also led a telephonic conference for FSIS personnel and numerous North American Meat Institute representatives on April 27 and the National Pork Producers Council on April 30.

Eskin also spoke on the phone on April 30 with Zach Corrigan, senior staff attorney for Food & Water Watch, an activist group favoring slowing line speeds.

Whether a producer can turn out an extra 100 or hogs per hour is probably what this case is all about.    Unions involved in the case can and will produce anecdotal reports of injuries and the industry appears ready to document improving safety records for their employees.

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