USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service will allow up to nine pork plants to operate at faster line speeds in a year-long trial so long as they implement worker safety measures.

A federal judge in March vacated part of a USDA rule that had eliminated line speed limits, saying the department had failed to properly consider risks to worker safety. USDA did not appeal, forcing six plants to slow their lines.

FSIS announced Friday it worked with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to develop the trial program, which “will enable establishments to experiment with ergonomics, automation, and crewing to create custom work environments that will protect food and worker safety while increasing productivity.”

The National Pork Producers Council praised the move. 

“We’re very pleased with USDA’s proposal to let certain plants run at higher line speeds, which will allow more hogs to be harvested and more pork to get to consumers,” said NPPC President Jen Sorenson. “This is particularly important now given the strong demand for pork, supply chain problems and our industry’s packing capacity constraints.”

NPPC said nine plants that had adopted the agency’s 2019 New Swine Inspection System (NSIS) would be eligible to apply for the program, which will require them to share data on the effects of line speeds on workers with OSHA. (Not all plants adopted faster line speeds.)

The North American Meat Institute also issued a statement, saying, that while its members "welcome this opportunity to restore lost production and help ease supply chain challenges." it would need to look more closely at the requirements for participation in the "limited trial."

"Facilities participating in the NSIS program successfully implemented worker safety and food safety programs operating at faster line speeds, many of them for two decades," NAMI said.

Food & Water Watch criticized the program, however, with Senior Staff Attorney Zach Corrigan saying the Biden administration was "caving to industry pressure."

"We already know that industry-friendly hog inspection rules create significantly more food safety problems than rules that require strong federal oversight," Corrigan said. "The administration was right to accept a court decision throwing out the awful Trump administration rules that allowed slaughterhouses to ramp up their slaughter-line speeds. Unfortunately, they are now reversing course on this with a pilot program that continues to put industry profits over protecting the safety of our food supply."

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The court ruling resulted in the loss of 2.5% of the pork industry’s harvest capacity, according to an analysis by Iowa State University economist Dermot Hayes cited by NPPC.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which had sued over the line speed provision, supports the program because it will allow for the collection of data "to show how best to protect worker safety and promote food safety,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone said. 

The court ruling "recognized that the USDA was required to consider worker safety and failed to do so," Perrone said. 

In her order in March, U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen in Minnesota said “there is some evidence to suggest that line speeds do not increase worker injury rates,” but added that “the weight of the evidence clearly demonstrates that line speeds are a risk factor that will increase the already hazardous conditions faced by workers.”

This story was updated with statements from NAMI, UFCW and Food & Water Watch.