USDA plans to lift hog processing line speeds, increasing the rate of already lightning quick conveyor belts at the expense of fundamental workers’ rights
Factory pork manufacturers slaughter about 1,100 hogs an hour, sending the 240-pound (typically, although not always, deceased animal) carcass down a conveyor belt for dismembering at the rate of sixteen a minute. It’s a process that is notorious for causing worker injuries — seventeen times the national worker average, according to occupational safety group National COSH.
The Trump Administration has now decided that these workers have it too good.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has bowed to a longtime industry request, proposing to cede oversight responsibilities to companies, part of which means allowing them to “determine their own evisceration speeds.”
We don’t need to wait to see how this will turn out. Mother Jones reports that three slaughterhouses that participated in the pilot program the USDA set up for this self-policing ended up on the list of the ten most cited hog plants for animal welfare and food safety violations, including the #1 violator by far.
Line speeds are associated with one of the most concerning worker safety issues: the lack of bathroom breaks. Big Ag companies are so profit focused that they run their lines at speeds where one worker can’t cover for another, and they don’t provide sufficient relief to workers. As a result, a 2016 inspection of a Swift Pork facility in Beardstown, Illinois, revealed horrifying results. According to a document from the ensuing class action on behalf of the workers:
Restrictions included requiring employees to wait an unreasonable period of time after telling a supervisor they needed to use the toilet; pressuring employees whose medication increased their need to use the toilet to adjust the time they took their medications or reduce their water intake; and penalizing employees for leaving the production line to use the toilet, visit the nurse, or sharpen a knife more than once per day or more than six times in five days. As a result of these restrictions, employees have reduced their food and water intake, worn adult diapers during the work day for fear they would be disciplined for even routine toilet use, and even soiled themselves on the production line.
That’s what’s happening before USDA lifts the line speed restriction.
This is a special issue of concern for us at Public Justice because our lawsuits and our activism target the many ways Big Ag uses its chumminess with the federal government to the detriment of consumer choice, the quality of your food, and the livelihoods of the vast majority of the people involved in bringing your food to you.
Reversing this rigged game is at the heart of our legal and grassroots actions to restore Country-of-Origin Labeling on beef and pork products, through which we are trying to restore integrity to a marketplace in which multinational companies routinely pass off products raised and slaughtered overseas, and merely processed domestically in some way, as a product of the U.S.A. We want true domestic, independent raisers of cattle and pork to be on level footing with corporations that produce food in a very different way.
In our constitutional challenges to ag-gag laws across the country, we’re responding to the lack of regulation of slaughterhouses and other meat factories by protecting the First Amendment rights of those who investigate the facilities, often the only ones in a position to expose the truth about the conditions inside and bring about changes to the system.
The proposed scrapping of line speed restrictions is yet more proof that the Trump Administration’s manifold promises to rural American communities only go as far as the pocketbooks of the few individuals with total economic control of them: agribusiness. So Trump’s USDA wants to place yet additional burdens on workers so their employers can make a few extra bucks. Luckily, opponents have a chance to make their voices heard and to expose a Department of Agriculture that claims to stand with those who work in agriculture.
The comment period on this proposed change is currently open. The USDA has buried the page on which comments may be submitted online, making it all the more important to flood the department with messages from eaters, rural community members, people involved in the production of food, and anyone else who sees the removal of line speed restrictions as an unconscionable violation of workers’ rights. Consider submitting online comments or writing to Secretary Purdue and the USDA on Twitter.
There is some reason for hope that your voice will have an impact: also in late January, the USDA decided against doing away with line speed restrictions for chicken processing, even after a vigorous campaign by industry. If the public stands up to demand that all of their meat and each of the people who bring it to them are treated with more respect, maybe that will finally give Big Ag’s slaughterhouse workers the break they need.