A federal court in Minneapolis has tossed out a federal rule that eliminated line-speed restrictions in pork slaughterhouses, saying it was "arbitrary and capricious."
The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), including one of its Minnesota locals, sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2019 to stop implementation of a new inspection system for pork plants, which included unlimited line speeds.
The union claimed the USDA did not consider an "overwhelming record" that faster line speeds put workers at more risk of injury. In an order Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Joan Ericksen essentially agreed, vacating the USDA's limitless line-speed standard.
She stayed her order for 90 days to give meat plants that have adopted faster speeds more time to reconfigure their production lines.
When the USDA proposed the new system, "it expressly identified worker safety as an important consideration and requested public comment on whether increasing line speeds would harm workers," Ericksen wrote. "Then, after receiving many comments raising worker safety concerns, [the USDA] rejected the comments and eliminated line speed limits without considering worker safety."
By doing so, the agency ran afoul of a federal law that requires "reasoned decisionmaking" in administrative decisions, she wrote.
"The court's decision recognized that [President Donald] Trump's USDA violated basic principles of administrative law when it refused to consider the impact of its actions on plant workers," Adam Pulver, an attorney with Public Citizen, said in a statement.
Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer-advocacy group, filed suit against the USDA on behalf of the UCFW, which represents meatpacking workers in Minnesota and across the country.
Brooklyn Center-based UFCW Local 663, which has about 1,800 members at the big JBS pork plant in Worthington, is one of three UFCW locals that are plaintiffs in the case.
Matt Utecht, head of Local 663, said in a statement the court's decision "is a powerful victory for the health and safety for all pork-processing workers in Minnesota."
The USDA issued a statement saying it is "deeply committed to worker safety and a safe, reliable food supply. This is an important decision and we are reviewing it closely."
The North American Meat Institute said in a statement that it wants the USDA to appeal the court's decision. The meat trade group also said it offered "compelling evidence about the safety of workers" under the new USDA regulatory system in its own court filings.
"The Meat Institute is disappointed in [Ericksen's] ruling, especially following the 20 years of study through the pilot," it said.
Around 2000, the USDA launched a pilot program to test new ways for its Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to oversee pork plants.
Meatpacking firms got to boost output, and the USDA shifted some basic inspection duties to company employees, arguing federal meat inspectors would be better deployed conducting lab tests and other "offline" inspection. (Those provisions weren't affected by Ericksen's ruling.)
Under the USDA's pilot program, maximum line speeds — currently 1,106 hogs per hour — were done away with. In 2019, the USDA approved a new swine plant inspection system based on the pilot.
The USDA has said it expects 40 "high-volume" hog plants — representing 93% of the pork industry's capacity — to eventually adopt its new inspection system. By July, seven had done so, at least five of which had participated in the pilot program.
Quality Pork Processors in Austin, Minn., is one of those plants. It's the state's largest pork slaughterhouse after JBS in Worthington and supplies meat to an adjacent Hormel Foods plant.
Quality, whose workers are represented by the UFCW, didn't respond to a request for comment.
The UFCW has said JBS plans to adopt the UDSA's new inspection system in Worthington. JBS reiterated Thursday that it does not intend to do so.
Ericksen, in her opinion, wrote that "the weight of the evidence clearly demonstrates that line speeds are a risk factor that will increase the already hazardous conditions faced by workers."
That evidence includes an ample amount of academic and federal government research, she noted. Ericksen also cited testimony from UFCW meat plant workers, including Pablo Martinez at JBS in Worthington.
He had testified that he "experiences pain when the lines move faster" and has "observed severe hand injuries" to co-workers on the kill floor who use knives, according to Ericksen's order.
"I see that workers' hands [are] so mangled I cannot imagine they could even write a check," Ericksen wrote quoting Martinez's testimony.
Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003