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Judge Rejects Rule That Let Pork Plants Speed Up Production

Workers line up to enter a Tyson Foods pork processing plant last month in Logansport, Ind. Some of the worst workplace coronavirus outbreaks have been in the meatpacking industry. Major meatpackers JBS USA, Smithfield Foods and Tyson have said worker safety is their highest priority.
Associated Press
Workers line up to enter a Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Logansport, Ind.

A federal judge has thrown out a rule allowing pork plants to speed up production lines because the U.S. Department of Agriculture didn’t properly consider the risks to workers.

The judge in Minnesota ruled Wednesday that the agency’s Food Safety and Inspection Service didn’t follow proper procedures before President Donald Trump’s administration issued the rule in 2019. The lawsuit was filed by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union along with local unions in Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri and Oklahoma and the nonprofit consumer advocacy group Public Citizen.

U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen said the agency “expressly identified worker safety as an important consideration and requested public comment on whether increasing line speeds would harm workers. Then, after receiving many comments raising worker safety concerns, FSIS rejected the comments and eliminated line speed limits without considering worker safety.”

The USDA said Thursday that the agency is reviewing the ruling, and it remains “deeply committed to worker safety and a safe, reliable food supply.”

Union officials praised the ruling because they say faster line speeds at pork plants increase the risk of knife injuries, knee, back, shoulder and neck traumas, and repetitive motion injuries for workers.

“With the success of this lawsuit, our country’s essential workers have sent a powerful message that the safety of America’s food and workers is not for sale and that these companies will finally be forced to stop these dangerous practices,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone said.

Public Citizen attorney Adam Pulver, who represented the unions, said the agency should have considered worker safety.

“An agency can’t put its hands over its ears and refuse to consider facts that cut against its policy preferences, as USDA did here in ignoring workers and public health advocates, and blindly following industry’s wishes,” Pulver said.

The judge said her ruling won’t take effect for 90 days to allow regulators time to determine how the change will affect plants that already switched to faster line speeds.