UFCW, Public Citizen Sue to Stop Dangerous Slaughterhouse Rules

Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

The United Food and Commercial Workers and three of its Minnesota locals, who represent workers at slaughterhouses, and the pro-worker Public Citizen activist group filed suit against a GOP Trump administration rule that could in effect return the nation’s pork production to conditions found in The Jungle more than a century ago.

The case, filed by UFCW and its Locals 2, 410 and 663 on Oct. 7 in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, says the new inspection regime – or lack of it – that Trump’s Agriculture Department wants to impose endangers both safety of workers on the job and the nation’s health, by leaving pork carcasses open to bacterial hazards.

Trump’s Agriculture Department promulgated the final rule in the last several weeks and officially published it on Oct. 1. Deep in its text, it says the rule will add $87 million to the profits of the nation’s agribusiness pork processors.

But it would do so, the suit and the unions retort, at the expense of worker health and safety – particularly repetitive motion injuries – and consumer health, by letting diseased pork carcasses go by on the production line with no oversight from federal inspectors. They’d only get to look at the hogs before the carcasses enter the line and after they come off.

In between, the suit says, untrained plant employees -- i.e. managers ordered to speed through as many hogs as possible to increase production and profits – would eye carcasses.

Trump’s pork processing rule is yet another instance of his pro-plutocratic GOP administration caving to the wishes of the corporate class. The pork processors have been agitating for years for no speed limits on pork processing lines. They also lobbied for fewer, or no, federal inspectors to yank off diseased hogs. They got their wish in Trump’s rule.

In both senses, those conditions harken back to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, published in 1905. It exposed dangerous conditions – both to workers and consumers – in pork slaughterhouses of Chicago’s stockyards, the “Hog Butcher to the World.”

Then, Sinclair showed, what often came out as pork products at the end of the uninspected, ungoverned lines could easily contain not just pork, but sawdust, offal, feces and, sometimes, ground-up parts of workers who got chewed up and slaughtered with the hogs.

The three UFCW locals represent pork processing plant workers in Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma and the parent union represents tens of thousands of pork plant workers nationwide. Those workers face rising health hazards – in an industry that already has an injury rate 2.3 times the national average – due to the no-speed-limits section of Trump’s rule for pork processing lines.

Pork processing workers suffer from knee, back, shoulder and neck traumas, cuts and slashes from knives and blades and tens of thousands of repetitive-motion injuries, says UFCW President Marc Perrone.

“Our members work hard every day in America’s pork plants to help families put food on the table,” he said. “Increasing pork plant line speeds not only is a reckless giveaway to giant corporations, it will put thousands of workers in harm’s way.”

And consumers are in danger, too, Perrone said. “This new rule would dramatically weaken critical protections Americans depend on to be able to select safe, healthy food every day. 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.”

Public Citizen attorney Adam Pulver said the prior public comment period produced “mountains of evidence” of the dangers of faster line speeds and lack of inspectors. He added USDA disregarded all of that data in favor of a pro-industry study that even the agency’s own Inspector General questions.

Trump’s pork processing “rule dramatically alters the way in which pigs are slaughtered and processed for human consumption in the United States, abandoning protections for American workers and consumers that have been in place for decades,” the unions and Public Citizen say in their court papers

“The rule entirely eliminates maximum line speeds and reduces the number of government-employed safety inspectors on the lines by 40%, instead allowing the plants to use their own employees — with no required training — to monitor compliance with health and safety standards.”

“Commenters advised the agency the reduction in number of federal inspectors on the lines would put consumer and worker health and safety at risk, and the agency’s rejection of these comments was based on a methodologically flawed analysis,” the suit says.

“Moreover, USDA failed to meaningfully rebut the conclusion that Food Safety and Inspection Service inspectors cannot conduct the ‘critical appraisal’ of each carcass required by” federal law “when their (inspectors’) numbers are reduced and line speeds are unlimited.”

“As thousands of commenters told USDA during the rulemaking process, the rule will jeopardize the lives and safety of both consumers of pork products and workers” including the UFCW locals’ members. “Experts told USDA during the rulemaking ‘There is no doubt that increasing line speed will increase laceration injuries to workers.’”

“And elimination of a maximum line speed will potentially cause an epidemic of disabling work-related MSDs [musculoskeletal disorders],” they added, citing occupational health Professor Melissa Perry’s comments on repetitive motion injuries in pork processing lines. Dozens of studies back her testimony to USDA, the suit adds.

Given that USDA ignored the comments, the unions and Public Citizen want the court to judge Trump’s pork processing rule as “arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to law, and set (it) aside.” No date has been set for a hearing in the case.

Another union, the Government Employees (AFGE), is lobbying lawmakers to stop Trump’s pork inspection rule. It set up a toll-free number, 833-394-7292, for members and constituents to call to convince Congress to ban funding for the scheme. AFGE represents the pork processing plant inspectors, 40% of whom would lose their jobs.

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