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Biden administration to allow reversal of Trump program to accelerate pork plant line speeds

The Department of Agriculture has notified meatpacking plant owners that they have until the end of June to reduce line speeds to the previous legal limit.
The Department of Agriculture has notified meatpacking plant owners that they have until the end of June to reduce line speeds to the previous legal limit. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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The Biden administration said this week that it would comply with a March court ruling that found the Trump administration acted unlawfully in 2019 when it eliminated limits on pork plant line speeds without considering the increased risk of injury to workers.

The federal district court ruling said that the Department of Agriculture acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” when it did not evaluate the impact of escalating line speeds on workers who cut carcasses into ham, chops and other parts.

The USDA notified plant owners on Wednesday that they have until the end of June to reduce speeds to the previous legal limit of 1,106 hogs per hour, or 18 hogs per minute.

Eight large pork plants were given approval to raise their line speeds as high as they wanted under the Trump-era program, which also gave pork plant owners greater control over their facilities by allowing them to replace some USDA inspectors on slaughter lines with their own employees. The court ruling will not have an effect on this part of the program, which has been criticized by USDA inspectors and consumer advocacy groups as potentially endangering food safety.

The lawsuit was brought by United Food and Commercial Workers International, the union that represents the meat plant workers, and Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization.

“This is very significant. Workers’ hands are sore, their bodies are literally being torn apart,” said Martin Rosas, a former meat plant worker and president of UFCW Local 2, which covers Kansas, Missouri and the panhandle of Oklahoma. “I hope this sends a clear, strong message to the industry that finally someone made the workers a priority.”

Illness and injuries for people who work in meatpacking plants are about 16 times the average for all other industries in the nation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The National Pork Producers Council said in a statement that it was “disappointed” in the USDA’s decision to support a court ruling it said was “flawed.”

“Irreparable harm will be exacted on small U.S. hog farmers when this court order goes into effect at the end of June 2021,” the statement said, adding that the council “will continue to pursue all avenues to reverse a court decision that will lead to pork industry consolidation and increased packer market power.”

The USDA said the Justice Department will determine whether the court ruling will be appealed, but legal experts said it is unlikely because the agency has already decided to comply with the ruling.

“USDA is deeply committed to worker safety and ensuring a safe, reliable food supply,” the agency said in a statement, adding that it “will work with the establishments to comply with the court’s ruling and minimize disruptions to the supply chain.”

The council said that pork production will drop by an estimated 2.5 percent nationally as a result and that plants that have converted to the program will see production drop by as much as 25 percent.

Ultimately, the USDA had expected 40 pork plants to adopt the program. The department estimated that line speeds would increase by more than 12 percent at the plants, leading to an increase in annual industry profits of $2 million and collectively producing 90 percent of pork in the United States.

The pork trade group also criticized the court decision for not providing evidence of increased worker safety risks under the program. However, the court did cite studies and data that showed a relationship between high speeds and musculoskeletal injuries, cuts and amputations.