Workers Sue the USDA Over Hog Line-Speed Rollback

Public Citizen News / November-December 2019

By David Rosen

This article appeared in the November/December 2019 edition of Public Citizen News. Download the full edition here.

For more than a decade, whistleblowers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have warned workers at hog slaughter and pork processing plants against speeding up production lines. Faster line speeds at these plants increase the risks to consumers of consuming contaminated food and endanger the health and safety of plant workers.

Workers in these plants, many of whom are people of color or immigrants, already face some of the highest workplace injury and illness rates in the country: 2.3 times higher than the average for all private industries, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They regularly suffer from a variety of repetitive stress injuries, including tendonitis; carpal tunnel syndrome; knee, back, shoulder and neck traumas; and lacerations from knives and blades used in their work. Swine slaughter workers regularly report pressure to work as fast as possible, which increases the risk of injury.

That’s what thousands of commenters told the USDA when it proposed eliminating the caps on line speeds at hog slaughter plants and reducing the number of government safety inspectors on each line by 40%. Public comments submitted to the USDA, including those provided by Public Citizen last summer, identified dozens of peer-reviewed studies and expert analyses showing that eliminating line-speed maximums would put plant workers at greater risk.

In its final rule, published in September, the USDA did not dispute any of this evidence. Nonetheless, the agency refused to consider the impact of its actions on worker safety, despite having done so for decades.

“Allowing plant management to decide for itself what line speeds are safe and privatizing the inspection process is a classic case of the fox guarding the henhouse, and it must be stopped before irreparable harm is done,” said Shanna Devine, worker health and safety advocate for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.

In response to the rule, Public Citizen’s legal team sprang into action. Lawyers from Public Citizen, assisted by lawyers at the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), filed a lawsuit on Oct. 7 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, urging the court to set aside the USDA’s rule.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of UFCW and three of its local unions: UFCW Local 663, Local 440 and Local 2. Together, the union and locals represent thousands of employees in Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma who work at pork plants where the USDA expects companies to increase line speeds and alter safety inspection methods pursuant to the rule.

The complaint explains that the USDA’s refusal to consider the harms its actions will have on workers reflects arbitrary and capricious decision-making, violating the Administrative Procedure Act. Not only has the USDA considered worker health and safety impacts previously, but in proposing this rule, the agency acknowledged the importance of considering these impacts.

“There are two basic principles of administrative law: Agencies cannot refuse to address concerns about the impacts of their actions, and they must acknowledge and explain when they change their positions,” said Adam Pulver, the Public Citizen attorney handling the case. “By refusing to discuss the mountains of evidence showing that faster line speeds will endanger workers – even after acknowledging in its proposed rule the importance of considering worker safety – the USDA broke these two bedrock principles.”

The record before the USDA showed a clear link between worker safety and food safety – a connection Congress noted in adopting the Federal Meat Inspection Act in 1906 and the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act in 1978.

The complaint also alleges that the USDA violated the Federal Meat Inspection Act by replacing 40% of federal inspectors with inspectors employed by the company they are charged with inspecting.

Public Citizen and UFCW are asking the court to block implementation of the rule and set it aside.