Workers who slaughter America’s pork may be in for a significant change that could affect their safety.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently moved to eliminate the maximum speed rule on pork slaughter lines. The agency estimates that eliminating the rule will save large producers $3.78 million per year and increase annual production by 12.5%.
But workers fear that the cap on speed is necessary to protect worker safety, and a food workers’ union has just filed a federal lawsuit in an effort to block the elimination of the rule.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, along with three of its local affiliates and the public advocacy group Public Citizen, filed the lawsuit on Monday. They argue that the USDA ignored information that indicates that faster slaughter lines increase the rate of injuries among workers.
Meat processing workers already suffer high injury rates
According to occupational safety data cited in the lawsuit, meat processing workers are much more likely to be injured than the average U.S. worker. In fact, they suffer illness and injury at over twice the average rate.
“Increasing pork plant line speeds not only is a reckless giveaway to giant corporations, it will put thousands of workers in harm’s way,” the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union said in a statement. “The safety of America’s food and workers is not for sale, and this lawsuit seeks to ensure this dangerous rule is set aside and these companies are held accountable.”
The USDA told Bloomberg that it wouldn’t comment on ongoing litigation.
Will it be the fox guarding the henhouse?
Under the new USDA regulation that eliminates the maximum speed rule, pork processors will be allowed to set their own slaughter speeds based on what is necessary to minimize bacteria and prevent fecal contamination. That doesn’t take into account the potential increase in worker illnesses and injuries.
Several years ago, the USDA ran a pilot program to test the elimination of the speed limit. That program indicated that most slaughterhouses wouldn’t actually increase their speed much beyond the previous maximum speed, which was 1,106 pigs per hour. It also showed that there was little additional Salmonella risk.
That said, Tyson Foods had sped up its chicken slaughter lines but had to slow them down again this year. This was because it was forced to recall millions of pounds of chicken that was contaminated with metal, rubber and other materials.
The new regulation also reduced government oversight of pork processors. The regulation allows meat packing companies to take on some of the food safety inspections currently performed by the government. For example, meat packers will now be allowed to identify meat with certain unallowable defects and remove it from the slaughtering process.
Working on a slaughter line is intensely demanding. Will speeding up the work increase those demands to a point where they are impossible to meet?
Every U.S. company has the legal responsibility to provide a reasonably safe working environment. If you work in pork processing and are being forced to speed up your work to an unsafe degree, you may wish to contact an attorney to discuss your rights.