For the first time in more than five decades, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) offered modernizations to its swine slaughter inspection. In an effort to halt the implementation of the rule, the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union, together with Public Citizen and UFCW Locals 663, 440 and 2, filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota seeking to stop the new rule from going into effect.
Much of the attention of the modernization efforts focuses on an increase in line speed for hogs and allowing plant workers instead of USDA inspectors to do inspections on the line. However, USDA has said the change offers USDA inspectors more focus on off-line tasks, including verifying hazard analysis and critical control point (HACCP) procedures, sanitation and animal welfare activities.
"In the past, plant workers have actually been able to remove defects after it goes through our inspection system. Now, before they’re presented for slaughter, plant workers are allowed to look at quality defects and then present them for slaughter,” USDA deputy undersecretary for food safety Mindy Brashears said.
UFCW International president Marc Perrone said in a statement that increasing pork plant line speeds will put thousands of workers in harm’s way. “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,” he said.
UFCW represents about 250,000 workers in the meatpacking and food processing industries and 30,000 workers in pork plants. UFCW members handle 71% of all hogs slaughtered and processed in the U.S., the union claims.
“We urged the USDA to consider how unsafe this rule would make our workplaces, but they refused,” UFCW Local 663 president Matt Utecht in Minnesota said. “We had no choice but to go to court to stop a rule that will endanger the health and livelihoods of thousands of UFCW members.”
In its statement, UFCW said meatpacking workers are injured at 2.4 times the rate of other industries. “These injuries result in lost time or restrictions at three times the rate of other industries, and they face illness rates at 17 times the rate of other industries,” UFCW noted.
The lawsuit alleges that the new rule violates the Administrative Procedure Act because it is not backed by reasoned decision-making.
At the time of the release, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said the “final rule is the culmination of a science-based and data-driven rule-making process, which builds on the food safety improvements made in 1997, when USDA introduced a system of preventive controls for industry.”
In May 2018, more than 6,500 UFCW members who work in pork plants submitted comments to USDA in opposition to the proposed rule that would increase the line speeds where they work. All the UFCW locals that are parties in the lawsuit represent pork slaughter workers. UFCW Local 663 is based in Brooklyn Center, Minn.; UFCW Local 440 is based in Denison, Iowa, and UFCW Local 2 is based in Bel Aire, Kan.
“We have a lot of pride in the products our members produce,” UFCW Local 440 president Leo Kanne said. “This rule will erode the quality and safety of the food we make and feed to our own families.”