USDA has granted three pork plants the go-ahead to increase processing line speeds this month as part of a pilot program. The three plants are Clemens Food Group in Hatfield, Penn.; Quality Pork Processors in Austin, Minn.; and Wholestone Farms Cooperative in Fremont, Neb.
Under this pilot, plants can operate at faster line speeds for up to a year and collect data on how line speeds impact workers. “The trial will facilitate experimentation with different ergonomics, automation, and crewing to design custom work environments that increase productivity and protect food safety while decreasing the probability of worker injuries,” a spokesperson for USDA said.
The pilot is designed to provide more data on the age-old questions around line speeds, worker conditions, and product safety that have persisted in the industry for years. Meat inspection relied almost exclusively on organoleptic assessment of carcasses to protect consumers for years. Over time, line equipment speeds have increased well beyond the visual capabilities of the human eye, often leaving industry, workers, and regulators at odds over the best approach to inspect as many carcasses as possible while keeping workers and consumers safe. While increased analytical testing can provide data to reduce some of the product safety concerns, it ignores the worker component.
At one time, line speeds were limited to 140 carcasses per minute, double the speed historically seen. Studies have used line speeds as high as 175 carcasses per minute, but participating plants have often struggled to meet the food safety components at those higher speeds, forcing some participants to drop out of those trials.
In 2019, the FSIS issued the New Swine Inspection System (NSIS), which would allow companies to choose their own slaughter speeds. The rule also mandated new microbial testing for facilities in order to improve process control. However, a decision by the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota in 2021 upheld a lawsuit against USDA, ruling that a controversial final rule that removes line speeds in pork-processing plants and transfers certain inspection responsibilities to plant workers, compromises worker health and consumer welfare.
At the time, Jen Sorenson, president of the National Pork Producers Council, says the court decision would reduce processing capacity by 2.5% nationally. Those numbers would certainly have made a difference in production during the difficult early days of the pandemic, but the question remains as to whether they are they necessary under regular operating conditions.
OSHA is the agency responsible for worker safety in food facilities. They’re not typically a strong presence, so worker protection and enforcement activities may be limited at best. The Safe Line Speeds During COVID Act (S.713) and Protecting America’s Meatpacking Workers Act (S.3285) are both pending in Congress and, if passed, would address many of the concerns some agencies have with the increased-speed slaughter.
For now, we’ll need to see what the data says in the current trials and decide how to proceed from there.
Loria is a freelance writer based in Virginia. Reach him at [email protected]. Wester is a food industry consultant and Executive Industry Editor of Food Quality & Safety. Reach her at [email protected].