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US Court Rules for Safety in Meatpacking

Order Overturns Federal Rule Eliminating Speed Limits in Hog Plants

© 2019 Brian Stauffer for Human Rights Watch

In a major victory for meatpacking workers, a United States district court in Minnesota on Wednesday found that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) had violated federal law with a 2019 rule eliminating slaughter line speed limits in hog processing plants. In its order, the court found the agency had failed to appropriately consider workers’ health and safety.

The USDA’s rule was a focus of Human Rights Watch’s 2019 report, “‘When We’re Dead and Buried, Our Bones Will Keep Hurting’: Workers’ Rights Under Threat in US Meat and Poultry Plants,” and our campaign to #SlowDownTheLine.

Nearly all the meat and poultry workers I interviewed for the report identified production speed as the biggest factor making their job dangerous. Human Rights Watch documented alarmingly high rates of serious injury and chronic illness among meatpacking workers, and called on the USDA to stop pursuing this rule — which at the time was not yet in effect — and other policies that increase work speeds in meat and poultry plants. We also described concerns raised by workers’ rights advocates about the failure of the agency’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to adequately consider the effects that eliminating line speed limits would have on workers.

I met with the then-acting head of the FSIS to talk about the experiences and concerns that workers shared with me. In short, she reiterated what FSIS had consistently said about whether they are required to address potential impacts of their policies on workers: That’s not our job.

This week’s court decision ultimately centered on this issue. But US District Judge Joan Ericksen roundly rejected the agency’s excuse:

“[T]he [rule] provided a shield that allowed the agency to avoid explaining why it chose to not only increase, but entirely eliminate line speed limits despite decades of research about the effects that change could have on workers.”

USDA and FSIS have 90 days to decide how to respond to the ruling. The agencies now have a second chance to listen to the concerns raised by meatpacking workers, health and safety experts, and advocates, and finally take steps to #SlowDownTheLine.

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