USDA rule speeding up pork lines and reducing inspectors should be set aside, consumer group and union argue
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rule lifting the lid on line speeds and reducing the number of government safety inspectors by 40 percent at pork slaughter and processing plants should be set aside, lawyers from Public Citizen and United Food and Commercial Workers said in a lawsuit filed Monday in federal court.
Thousands of commenters told the USDA during the rulemaking process that the rule would endanger the lives and safety of consumers and workers. Comments also offered dozens of peer-reviewed studies and expert analyses showing that the USDA’s changes would put plant workers, who already are in one of the most dangerous jobs in America, at increased risk of injuries.
In its final rule, the USDA didn’t dispute this evidence. Instead, the agency refused to consider the impact of its actions on worker safety, despite having considered it in the past and said that the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration should consider worker injuries instead.
The lawsuit argues that the USDA’s refusal to consider worker safety is arbitrary decision-making and violates the Administrative Procedure Act.
In addition, the comments showed a link between worker safety and food safety. Workers also say that the USDA’s replacing 40 percent of federal inspectors with plant employee inspectors – individuals who can be intimidated and pressured by management – violates federal law.
“There are two basic principles of administrative law: agencies cannot simply refuse to address concerns about the impacts of their actions, and they must acknowledge and explain when they change their positions,” said Adam Pulver, attorney for Public Citizen. “By refusing to even discuss the mountains of evidence showing that faster line speeds will put workers’ health at risk, after acknowledging the importance of considering worker safety in its proposed rule, the USDA broke these two bedrock rules.”
The three local unions in the case – UFCW Local 663, Local 440, and Local 2 – represent thousands of employees in Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma who work at pork slaughter and processing plants where the USDA expects companies to increase line speeds and alter safety inspection methods under the rule. UFCW International also represents tens of thousands of workers at dozens of pork slaughter and processing plants across the United States.
Meatpacking workers suffer injuries and illnesses at a rate 2.3 times higher than the average for private industries, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Swine slaughter workers regularly have reported extreme pressure to work as fast as possible, which increases the risk of repetitive motion injuries; tendonitis; carpal tunnel syndrome; knee, back, shoulder and neck traumas; and lacerations from knives and blades. UFCW members who work at pork plants have suffered from all of these injuries, according to the lawsuit.
The USDA is being criticized for the undisclosed data and flawed analysis used to justify the rule. In June, the agency’s Office of Inspector General launched an investigation into the agency’s conduct during rulemaking at the request of 17 members of Congress.
Public Citizen and UFCW are asking the court to stop the rule from being carried out and to set it aside.