Former President Donald Trump helped meatpacking companies speed up the production lines inside their plants to process more animals, despite worries it could lead to more injuries for workers. But so far, the Biden administration has delivered a very different message: Not so fast.
The pork industry suffered a setback this week when President Joe Biden’s Agriculture Department said it would comply with a court ruling invalidating key parts of a Trump-era meatpacking rule. As a result, some pork facilities will have to back down the speed of their lines.
The Trump rule had allowed certain plants to jack up their speeds above the traditional cap of 1,106 hogs per hour. But a federal judge in Minnesota ruled in March that USDA officials under Trump instituted that rule in an “arbitrary” and “capricious” manner, failing to take worker safety into account. The judge gave hog processors and the USDA 90 days to sort things out.
The pork industry lobby asked the Biden administration to appeal the ruling, arguing it would hurt meat production to slow the plants. But it now appears unlikely the administration will do that.
The USDA posted an alert Wednesday telling pork plants to be ready to slow their lines down by June 30. The agency said that it was “committed to worker safety and ensuring a safe, reliable food supply,” and that it planned to comply with the Minnesota ruling.
The move was cheered by the United Food and Commercial Workers, a union representing 33,000 workers in pork plants. The UFCW and the progressive advocacy group Public Citizen filed the Minnesota lawsuit, arguing the Trump rule was dangerous.
“The safety of America’s frontline food workers must never again take a backseat to corporate profits,” the union’s president, Marc Perrone, said in a statement.
Worker groups and the meat industry have fought for years over line speeds. Meat producers claim they can increase production safely, but unions and occupational health experts say the faster speeds lead to more hazards in a field known for repetitive-motion injuries and other damage.
Late last year, the Trump administration issued a separate rule allowing certain poultry plants to increase their speeds, from 140 chickens per minute to 175.
It was a so-called midnight regulation, issued just before Trump’s presidency ended, that would have fulfilled a long-term goal of the poultry industry, even as meat plants were experiencing some of the worst coronavirus clusters in the nation. A November 2020 study found that plants that had received speed waivers had higher transmission rates of COVID-19.
But the new administration withdrew the poultry rule in January, just days after Biden’s inauguration.
The pork rule had been implemented by the Trump administration in 2019. Just a handful of pork plants had been operating at the faster speeds in a pilot program going back to the Clinton administration, but the Trump rule would have expanded the number of plants that could run faster.
The National Pork Producers Council, a lobby for the industry, said the court decision striking down the rule would be ”disastrous″ for hog farmers because they had bred pigs assuming plants could handle increased capacity. The group urged the USDA to “intervene.”
So far, Biden’s stance on line speeds is consistent with his statements as a candidate. He said on the campaign trail a year ago that he believed the processing lines inside meat plants were moving too fast as it is.
“Whether it’s cattle, whether it’s beef, whether it’s pigs, whether it’s chicken, they’re moving down that line faster and faster and faster to increase the profit rate,” Biden said during a Yahoo News town hall in May 2020. “People are getting sicker. People are getting hurt. The very thing we should be doing now is making sure these people are protected.”
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