Occupational Safety & Health Reporter℠

Minnesota Judge to Decide Whether to Slow Swine Slaughter Speeds

Oct. 13, 2020, 8:28 PM

A federal judge in Minnesota is set to decide on whether to throw out a U.S. Department of Agriculture rule that sped up swine slaughter lines for some companies, or send it back to the agency for revision.

U.S. District Judge Joan N. Ericksen in Minneapolis heard summary judgment and remand arguments Tuesday in a lawsuit brought by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union challenging the USDA’s move to increase line speeds at pork slaughterhouses.

“These workers will face an increased risk of injury,” said Adam Pulver, an attorney at Public Citizen Litigation Group, who represents UFCW in the litigation. He added that if Ericksen sends the rule back to the agency, there must be a new notice and comment process.

The UFCW and a group of UFCW locals sued the agriculture department in October 2019 soon after the agency’s Food Safety Inspection Service finalized the Modernization of Swine Slaughter Inspection rule, revoking maximum slaughter line speeds for some companies.

The government has said that faster line speeds could increase line production by 12.5%, and that its related plans for flexible oversight would lead to better control of pathogens and safer conditions for workers.

The unions want the rule set aside, arguing the increase will create additional safety concerns in an already-hazardous industry where workers suffer injuries and illness more than twice as often as workers in all other private industries, according to documents filed in the case.

Calling the union’s claim speculative during the Tuesday hearing, Justice Department lawyer Joseph DeMott said the USDA’s role isn’t to regulate worker safety.

The new line speeds “were designed for adequate food safety inspections,” he said, adding that if the court were to leave the prior standards in place, “it’d be in sole concern for worker safety.”

The U.S. wants Ericksen to either grant judgment in its favor or remand the matter to the USDA for reconsideration of its rule.

While the case was filed before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, its significance has been magnified by the thousands of meat processing workers who have since contracted Covid-19 or been exposed to the virus that causes the disease. Several wrongful death lawsuits have been filed by families of deceased workers. Meat processing companies that face lawsuits include Tyson Foods Inc., Quality Sausage Co., and JBS.

In September, Ericksen allowed seven state attorneys general and industry lobbyists from the North American Meat Institute and the National Pork Producers Council to file amicus briefs in support of the union and USDA, respectively.

Ericksen said she will take the arguments under advisement and “will issue an order in due course.”

The case is UFCW, Local No. 663 v. USDA, D. Minn., No. 0:19-cv-02660-JNE-TNL, summary judgment hearing 10/13/20.

To contact the reporter on this story: Fatima Hussein in Washington at fhussein@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com

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