This week, the UFCW International together with UFCW Locals 663, 440 and 2 filed a federal lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota seeking to stop the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) new swine slaughter modernization rule, which eliminates the line speed limits in pork slaughter plants and reduces the number of Federal inspectors important for ensuring the safety of our food by 40%. Public Citizen Litigation Group represents the UFCW and local unions in the lawsuit.
In a press release, UFCW International President Marc Perrone said the following:
“Thousands of our members work hard every day in America’s pork plants to help families across the country put food on the table. Increasing pork plant line speeds is not only a reckless giveaway to giant corporations, it will put thousands of workers in harm’s way. This new rule would also dramatically weaken critical protections that Americans depend on to be able to select safe, healthy food to feed their families every day. The safety of America’s food and workers is not for sale and this lawsuit seeks to ensure this dangerous rule is set aside and these companies are held accountable.”
What is “line speed?”
Mark Nemitz, Assistant to Director of the UFCW’s Food Processing, Packing, & Manufacturing Division, and a former kill floor worker who knows what it’s like to be on the line firsthand, explained:
A line is basically a chain that is up above you in the air about fifteen feet. On that are these trolleys, and the hog will hang on that and go past you. Currently, with inspectors there we’re running about eleven hundred and six hogs per hour, and if we were to increase that, it would cause them to go faster and we’d have to just hurry through.
If we were to allow the line speeds to go up, we’re just putting more strain on workers’ bodies. More stressors. And it’s just not good.
Along with the food safety aspect, when you go faster, you have less time that you can see a piece of meat to detect any foreign material or any imperfections in it. I used to work on the line on the kill floor myself and you say ‘well, I can’t add more people to a lot of places because we’re pretty squeezed tight,’ so you put another person in a tight spot, you have knives in your hands, you’re moving faster. The animals have gotten bigger over the years, too, so there’s more cutting. There’s just a lot to this other than ‘we’re just going to speed this up and it’s going to be fine.’ It’s going to cause a lot of issues. Many times, we’re working around 95% of our capacity anyway as it is, and increasing the speed would just make it so hard. I can only imagine being on the line today.”
Taking legal action
In May 2018, more than 6,500 UFCW members who work in pork plants submitted comments to the USDA in opposition to the proposed rule that would “increase the line speeds where they work, threatening both them and the consumers they serve.” But the USDA chose to ignore those concerns.
“We have been objecting as the USDA prepared to promulgate this rule that allows companies to completely eliminate line speeds,” said Sarai King, Assistant General Counsel for the UFCW International. “In addition to line speed limitations, it also reduces the number of federal inspectors on the line by forty percent. When this rule came out, we were ready to challenge it immediately because we knew how badly it would affect our workers.”
The UFCW represents the largest number of workers in the meatpacking industry in the country. The three local unions who joined with the UFCW International to bring the lawsuit all have major packing plants and represent a significant number of workers impacted by the rule.
“We urged the USDA to consider how unsafe this rule would make our workplaces, but they refused,” said UFCW Local 663 President Matt Utecht in Minnesota. “We had no choice but to go to court to stop a rule that will endanger the health and livelihoods of thousands of UFCW members.”
“We have a lot of pride in the products our members produce,” said UFCW Local 440 President Leo Kanne in Iowa. “This rule will erode the quality and safety of the food we make and feed to our own families.”
“The USDA claims that this rule will make our food safer,” said UFCW Local 2 President Martin Rosas in Kansas. “But our members, who have worked in the industry for years, know firsthand it makes both the food they make and the plants they work in less safe. Let’s listen to the experts who work in these plants every day instead of big corporations just looking to make even more money.”
“Shockingly, USDA admitted in its rule that it simply ignored the mounds of evidence that showed its actions will harm workers, while bending over backwards to help businesses. That violates basic principles of administrative law,” said Adam Pulver, an attorney with Public Citizen, which represents UFCW and the three locals in the case.
Under the Administrative Procedure Act, federal agencies like the USDA have to provide reasons for what they do that are supported by logical evidence. In this case, in the face of overwhelming evidence that injuries increase when line speeds increase, the USDA ignored the evidence and went instead with what big companies wanted, allowing them to increase the line speeds with no limits at all. The lawsuit objects to the fact that the USDA ignored the risks to worker safety and reduced the number of federal inspectors, which means that food may not be adequately appraised or properly inspected. The lawsuit asks the court to declare the rule against the law as “arbitrary and capricious,” which means that it was done without reasoned decision-making. It also asks the court to set aside the rule and prevent the USDA from further implementing it.
- The USDA published a new rule for pork meat inspections which removes limits on line speeds in swine slaughter plants and turns over major meat inspection tasks from federal inspectors to meat companies.
- The UFCW represents about 250,000 workers in the meatpacking and food processing industries and 30,000 workers in pork plants. UFCW members handle 71 percent of all hogs slaughtered and processed in the United States.
- In May 2018, more than 6,500 UFCW members who work in pork plants submitted comments to the USDA in opposition to the proposed rule that would increase the line speeds where they work, threatening both them and the consumers they serve.
- All the UFCW locals who are parties in the lawsuit represent pork slaughter workers. UFCW Local 663 is based in Brooklyn Center, Minn.; UFCW Local 440 is based in Denison, Iowa; and UFCW Local 2 is based in Bel Aire, Kan.
- The Modernization of Swine Slaughter Inspection rule will hurt workers across the country.
Hazards of Modernization of Swine Slaughter Inspection Rule:
- The Modernization of Swine Slaughter Inspection rule removes all limitations on line speeds in hog slaughter plants which will endanger the health and safety of tens of thousands of workers in the hog slaughter industry.
- Even at current line speeds, swine slaughter and processing workers face many job risks that can lead to severe injury, illness and death.
- There is no evidence that line speed increases can be done in a manner that ensures food and worker safety.
- In 1997, the USDA created a pilot program called the HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) which allowed five hog slaughter plants to test a new food safety program. The hog slaughter pilot program revealed serious safety issues including a Clemens food plant in Pennsylvania which reported injuries severe enough that two workers were hospitalized, and one suffered an amputation.
- The Modernization of Swine Slaughter Inspection rule includes no requirement or funding to train plant employees on inspection techniques that were previously performed by USDA inspectors and are now their responsibility.
- Increased line speeds will disproportionately hurt women and people of color.
Key Facts About Swine Workers:
- Meatpacking workers in hog slaughter plants work in cold, wet, noisy, and slippery conditions making tens of thousands of forceful repetitive motions on each shift.
- Research shows that the fast pace in pork plants, coupled with the forceful and repetitive nature of most of the jobs, leads to high rates of injuries and health issues.
- Meatpacking workers are injured at 2.4 times the rate of other industries. These injuries result in lost time or restrictions at three times the rate of other industries and they face illness rates at 17 times the rate of other industries.
- The previous maximum line speed for swine was 1,106 hogs per hour.