Minnesota judge strikes down rule that eliminated pork plant line speed restrictions

Mike Hughlett
Minneapolis Star Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS — 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, including one of its Minnesota locals, sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture 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 March 31, 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 the new inspection system time to reconfigure their 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 the 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 represents around 1,800 workers at the JBS pork plant in Worthington, Minn., is one of three UFCW locals that are plaintiffs in the case.

Matt Utecht, head of Local 663, said in a statement that the court’s decision “is a powerful victory for the health and safety for all pork-processing workers in Minnesota; ... the USDA will no longer allow pork plants to operate at dangerous speeds that put workers at risk.”

The USDA did not immediately respond for comment.

The North American Meat Institute said in a statement 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 to oversee pork plants.

Meatpacking firms got to boost output, and the USDA shifted some basic inspection to company employees, arguing federal meat inspectors would be better deployed conducting lab tests and other “offline” inspection.

Under the pilot program, line speeds — currently around 1,100 hogs per hour — were done away with. In 2019, the USDA approved a new swine plant inspection system based on the pilot program, including higher line speeds.

A tent set up outside the entrance of the JBS pork plant in Worthington, Minn., on May 14.