MINNEAPOLIS — The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) acted unlawfully when it eliminated maximum line speeds in meat processing plants, a federal district court in Minneapolis ruled Wednesday.

The USDA issued the New Swine Inspection System (NSIS) in October 2019, despite concerns from plant workers nationwide. Between the time the NSIS was proposed and the effective date, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) labor union appealed to the USDA not to make the change. After their plea was unsuccessful, UFCW representatives took their case to civil court.

Leading the charge in the litigation was UFCW Local 663 — which represents JBS Worthington employees — along with two other locals and their affiliated international labor union.

The civil complaint lists the following two problems with NSIS:

  • Eliminating limits on line speeds does not consider the safety of line workers and could put them at risk for injury.
  • The required number of government-employed inspectors was reduced by 40%, allowing plants to use their own employees (with no inspection training) to certify compliance with federal health and safety standards.
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The USDA agreed at the time it issued the new rules that a substantial amount of evidence showed that thousands of workers would be put at risk. Officials responded to concerns by asserting that the USDA does not have the authority to "regulate issues related to establishment worker safety."

UFCW argued in the lawsuit that the USDA had a responsibility to consider the consequences of its actions for worker safety, noting that in the past, such consideration has been the USDA's practice.

The complaint further alleged that revoking line speed limits was a violation of the United Nations' Animal Products Act of 1999, and reducing inspection standards violated the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906.

UFCW Local 663 represents about 1,900 workers at the JBS Worthington plant. Prior to the rule change, federal standards limited the line speed on the slaughter floor to 1,106 hogs per hour. The USDA had identified the Worthington plant as one of 40 "high-volume" processing plants it expected to increase its speeds by 12.49% as a result of the rule change.

Court documents include testimony from the American Public Health Association and the National Employment Law Project, which cited data showing that increasing line speeds leads to higher rates of repetitive stress injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis, as well as lacerations and other injuries resulting from using knives more quickly and in closer proximity to coworkers. Local 663 members already had frequent carpal tunnel diagnoses, joint injuries and lacerations (one resulting in an amputation) prior to NSIS.

The plaintiffs asked the court to declare the new rules "arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to law." After hearing arguments, the federal district court vacated the provision of NSIS that eliminates line speed limits.

Matt Utecht, president of UFCW Local 663, issued a statement following the court's ruling.

"This is a powerful victory for the health and safety for all pork processing workers in Minnesota who have been on the frontlines of COVID-19 helping our families put food on the table this past year," he said. "Thanks to this federal court ruling, the USDA will no longer allow pork plants to operate at dangerous speeds that put workers at risk and threaten our food safety.

"It took a worldwide pandemic to pull back the curtain and show the public the dangers of the meatpacking industry, and this victory helps ensure we never go back to the days of corporate profits coming before worker safety," Utecht added. "As the union for 16,000 thousand Minnesota meatpacking workers, UFCW Local 663 will continue to fight for the health and safety of our country’s essential food workers — both union and non-union — here and throughout the Midwest."