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A union representing more than 30,000 pork processing workers is challenging the U.S. Department of Agriculture's new swine rule that would eliminate limits on production line speed and reduce the number of required federal meat inspectors.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, along with three of its union locals, filed a civil lawsuit Monday in Minnesota federal court, arguing that these changes violate the Administrative Procedure Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906.

"The rule entirely eliminates maximum line speeds and reduces the number of government-employed 'online' safety inspectors ... by 40%, instead allowing the plants to use their own employees -- with no required training -- to monitor compliance with health and safety standards," the 20-page lawsuit said.

Despite thousands of comments from people who told the USDA during the rule-making process of the new swine rule's negative implications for workers and shoppers, the agency approved the final rule in late September, citing science-based analyses that critics claim were flawed.

Meanwhile, Tyson Foods and other meatpackers said they welcomed the rule that would reduce regulatory burdens on industry and allow them to use their own employees to do certain inspection duties traditionally done by government workers.

In the lawsuit, plaintiffs said the new swine rule "substantially harms [its] members by allowing employers to increase line speeds without limit," putting their members at greater risk of injury. They also argue that with fewer inspectors observing the lines, inspectors are less likely to observe dangerous conditions and to halt the line when necessary to protect workers.

These concerns, documented in the Federal Register, show that many worker injuries in the plants are caused by the repetitive nature of the work they perform, leading to injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis. According to the United Food and Commercial Workers union, its members suffer from these diagnoses and knee, back, shoulder and neck injuries as a result of their work on the slaughter lines. They are also at risk of suffering cuts.

Department of Labor data show that meatpacking workers suffer from injuries and illnesses at a rate that is 2.3 times higher than the average for all private industries and suffer occupational illnesses at a rate that is more than 17 times higher than the national average for all industries, public and private.

The final new swine rule, announced Sept. 17, is optional for meatpackers and takes effect Dec. 2.

A USDA spokesman on Monday declined to comment on pending litigation.

A point of contention during the new swine rule's development was how the agency handled dissemination of information to the public. Several comments were requests for a full risk analysis that showed how increasing processing line speeds would affect the safety of the workers, but the USDA did not comply until four months after the comment period deadline, the lawsuit said.

Once the USDA analysis was made available in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, two experts from Texas State University concluded that the study was flawed and it was "impossible for [the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service] to draw any statistically valid conclusion about worker injury rate differences" between traditional plants and those operating with faster line speeds under its experimental hog system. In a paper published last year, Celeste Monforton and Phillip Vaughan said flaws in the USDA's worker safety analysis included insufficient sample size, poor data methodology and a lack of a random sample.

Stakeholders then asked the USDA to reopen the rulemaking and comment period so the public could respond. The requests were denied.

Soon after, 17 members of Congress asked the USDA's Office of Inspector General to open an investigation into the agency's conduct throughout the rulemaking process, including its analysis and failure to disclose certain data.

When asked why the agency did not publish its worker safety analysis before the comment period deadline, a spokesman on Monday referenced the USDA's response in the final new swine rule that explains what information it chose to disclose to the public.

"While [the USDA] recognizes that working conditions in swine slaughter establishments is an important issue, the agency does not have the authority to regulate issues related to establishment worker safety," it said in the final swine rule published in the Federal Register on Oct. 1.

Business on 10/08/2019

Print Headline: Lawsuit targets USDA's new rule

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