A food-workers' union on Monday sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture, seeking to block the Trump administration's rule change that removes maximum line speeds in hog slaughterhouses.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) filed the federal lawsuit in the District of Minnesota, alleging that the new rule puts workers at greater risk of serious injury and could lead to more unsafe pork.
The USDA announced its final rule last month, referred to as modernization of swine-slaughter inspections. The new rule privatizes part of the meat-inspection process, allowing the company's employees to perform some of the food-safety tests.
This key change received much of the publicity, but slaughterhouse workers are more concerned that the rule also allows businesses to run their pork lines — where hogs are eviscerated and harvested for meat — as fast as they deem fit.
UFCW Local 663, based in Brooklyn Center, was one of three union locals to file the lawsuit. Local 663 represents more than 13,000 members across Minnesota and Iowa, including nearly 2,000 workers at the large JBS USA hog slaughterhouse in Worthington, Minn.
Workers at the Worthington plant have been vocal in their opposition to removing line-speed limits, citing the already fast-pace environment they work in.
"We urged the USDA to consider how unsafe this rule would make our workplaces, but they refused," UFCW Local 663 President Matt Utecht said Monday in a news release. "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."
Joining Local 663 in the lawsuit are UFCW Local 440, which represents workers in Iowa, and Local 2, which represents workers in Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.
A spokesperson for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
The pork industry has supported the rule change.
"We applaud the USDA for introducing a new inspection system that incentivizes investment in new technologies while ensuring a safe supply of wholesome American pork," David Herring, president of the National Pork Producers Council, said in a statement last month. "This new inspection system codifies the advancements we have made into law, reflecting a 21st century industry."
Lisa Thoma, who has worked at the Worthington plant for nearly 30 years, flew to Washington, D.C., last year to meet with lawmakers to express union opposition to the line-speed changes. She said her co-workers regularly deal with chronic wrist and back pain due to the repetitive motion, as well as serious knife cuts from working closely to others.
1,106 hogs per hour
According to the lawsuit, a worker in Worthington recently suffered a laceration severe enough to require amputation. The lawsuit did not give more detail on the injury.
The Worthington plant's current maximum line speed is 1,106 hogs per hour. Without government regulating line speeds, Thoma and her colleagues fear the company will require they process even more per shift.
"The pace we are working at is at full capacity for what one person can do," Thoma told the Star Tribune after her trip to Washington. "Each job in this factory is time studied. It's a method that they use to take a look at an individual to see how many cuts it takes them to do a specific job. At the end of the day, the customer as well as the employee is going to pay the price for this change."
The USDA acknowledged worker-safety concerns in its final rule by stating that while it "agrees that safe working conditions in swine slaughter establishments are important, the agency has neither the authority nor the expertise to regulate issues related to establishment worker safety," pointing out that the Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) oversees worker safety and conditions.
In the lawsuit, UFCW countered that "OSHA does not regulate line speeds at swine slaughter plants. Only USDA regulates line speeds at those plants."