The US Department of Agriculture is working on a proposed waiver system for pork factories forced by a federal court to slow down processing lines, Secretary Tom Vilsack said Thursday.
Waivers allowing factories to speed up processing lines again could reignite worries about worker safety, but increase profits for hog businesses and farmers. Vilsack did not specify exactly what the waivers would do.
In March, a federal judge ruled against a Trump administration rule that allowed pork factories to operate slaughter lines without speed limits, provided they prevent fecal contamination and minimize bacteria.
A lawsuit against the USDA by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union had challenged the 2019 rule regarding worker safety concerns.
The USDA has not appealed the Biden administration’s decision. However, the agency is now focused on finding ways “to allow adequate treatment but without sacrificing the safety and health of workers,” Vilsack said at a congressional hearing. He said the USDA is working with the pork industry and worker representatives.
Seaboard Foods, the second-largest pork producer in the United States, last year ramped up its Guymon, Oklahoma, pork plant, becoming the first company to operate under the 2019 rule. Workers said to Reuters that faster line speeds increased injuries at the plant.
Before the rule change, six other U.S. pork factories had exceeded previous speed limits with special clearance from the USDA, according to agency documents.
One factory, Quality Pork Processors in Minnesota, generated a proposal that the USDA could use to create the framework for new waivers for facilities that have slowed down, Vilsack said.
The USDA has said it wants to review the waiver criteria to “get line speeds back up” in discussions with the pork industry, U.S. Representative Jim Hagedorn of Minnesota, whose district includes Quality Pork Processors.
USDA did not respond to a request for details and Quality Pork Processors did not respond to requests for comment.
(Reporting by Tom Polansek; editing by Diane Craft)
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