Terry H. Schwadron
April 8, 2021
It was one court decision in one case, but it says a lot about what the Biden administration faces in seeking to undo the four years of Donald Trump.
This one involves reimagined rules set in 2019 — or the suspension of rules protecting both consumers and workers — to allow pork processing companies to determine themselves how fast their hog-slaughter lines move and gives them the job of overseeing injuries and meat safety themselves rather than insisting on government inspection — along the lines of the FAA giving over airline inspections to the airlines.
A federal court in Minnesota decided last week to overturn that rule change, arguing that there was no evidence the Trump era rule had evaluated worker safety. The Agriculture Department is now reported to be looking anew at the situation. Basically, the decision stays the rule for 90 days, giving companies and the Biden administration time to adapt.
It’s an example of the morass of deregulation that faces the Biden group in environment, education, manufacturing and health that need simultaneous attention — some, like Obamacare, actually facing looming court orders.
Still, as Mother Jones magazine noted in 2018, while this pork processing rule change “fit into the Trump Administration’s ongoing pattern of zealous deregulation, ‘modernizing’ inspection of slaughterhouse kill lines is very much a bipartisan endeavor that was as true under Barack Obama’s administration.
Naturally, it took no time at all for pork producers, in this case Seaboard Foods and Clemens Food Group, to promise slower slaughter and higher prices as a result and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union to offer thanks for acknowledgment that injuries are up since the rule took effect — a claim disputed by the North American Meat Institute, which represents meat companies.
Seaboard Foods, the second-biggest U.S. pig producer after Smithfield Foods, sped up its Guymon, Oklahoma, pork plant last year, becoming the first company to operate under the new rule. Reporters for Reuters talked with workers who said injuries are up.
Workers said Seaboard requires slaughter between about 1,230 and 1,300 hogs per hour, as compared to under 1,100 an hour in 2019. The company, second-biggest pork producer after Smithfield, said simply that employee health is a top priority. The rules are silent about worker injuries, insisting only that plants avoid fecal contamination and minimize bacteria in the meat.
Faster line speeds lead to increased harm to workers, from repetitive motion injuries to knife injuries.
Meatpacking plants became a particular focus during the early days of the pandemic, because of the closeness of working conditions for largely immigrant workers. But the plants largely continued work in most states without substantial shutdowns.
The poultry industry had been taking note of all this because they were next in line to implement those rule changes.The Biden administration has already withdrawn that change. In their various statements, industry groups talk more about modernization and food safety than worker injuries or any issues raised by self-inspection procedures.
Just for nothing, it was self-inspection practices that halted coronavirus manufacture last week at a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant in Baltimore contracted by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, after the makings for 15 million doses were ruined.
In 2018, Mother Jones went to slaughterhouses to witness hog carcasses move down the conveyor belt at an average rate of around 977 per hour — now 1,300 — or about 16 per minute — now 21. Workers tasked with disassembling these fast-moving 240-plus pound chunks of flesh endure high injury rates, which are likely even higher due to underreporting.
The new system for hog slaughter, now rejected in the court, reduces the role of USDA inspectors on the kill line, giving company employees direct oversight duties, said the magazine. Under this alternative slaughter system, pork companies would “determine their own evisceration line speeds,” the USDA says.
Before adopting the changes, the Agriculture Department had allowed five large-scale slaughter facilities to operate under the system, known as HIMP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points-based Inspection Models Project) since 1997. In a 2014 report, the agency noted line speed at the five HIMP plants averaged 1,099 hogs per hour, with the fastest among them reaching 1,295 per hour.
Mother Jones noted that while the USDA hails the HIMP model as a an effort to “modernize inspection systems through science-based approaches to food safety,” results of the pilot program have been less-than-stellar on the food safety font. A 2013 audit by the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General found that the USDA “did not provide adequate oversight” of the HIMP pilot over its first 15 years, and as a result, “HIMP plants may have a higher potential for food safety risks.”
It’s good to remember that meat doesn’t come from supermarkets.