By Tom Polansek
CHICAGO (Reuters) – The Biden administration is considering a proposal that could allow some pork factories to slaughter pigs faster if they increase their numbers, a union official said, after a U.S. court overturned a the Trump era that removed speed limits from lines.
The proposal put forward by Quality Pork Processors, the operator of a large Minnesota slaughterhouse, and union officials could benefit companies like Smithfield Foods of WH Group Ltd and JBS USA, the North American unit of the Brazilian meat packer JBS SA.
A faster slaughter would help them increase pork production at a time of high demand and skyrocketing prices for bacon.
Seven pork factories were initially able to operate without a line speed limit after a U.S. Department of Agriculture rule change in 2019 that did not need congressional approval. Six of the factories had already received waivers to operate at a faster pace.
In March, a federal judge struck down the policy and forced factories to slow down following a United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union (UFCW) lawsuit against the USDA over worker safety concerns .
The second-largest U.S. pork producer, Seaboard Foods, which previously did not have a waiver, last year ramped up an Oklahoma pork plant under the 2019 rule. Workers told Reuters that faster line speeds increased injuries and there weren’t enough workers to run faster production lines safely.
Under the new proposal, Quality Pork Processors would be able to speed up again if the USDA and unions agree staff levels are high enough, said Richard Morgan, president of the UFCW local that represents the UFCW. factory workers. He said staffing levels could be monitored on a daily basis.
“The number of employees would dictate the speed of the line that day,” he said. “It’s all about the staff.
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said last week that USDA is reviewing the Quality Pork Processors proposal and may create the waiver structure for five more facilities. He didn’t give details but appeared to be referring to waived facilities before the 2019 rule.
“I’m happy that they equate the speed of lines with worker safety, but these are all behind-the-scenes transactions and don’t seem to factor in food safety at all,” said Zach Corrigan, senior counsel for Food & Water Watch.
The Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
USDA did not respond to the following questions, and Quality Pork Processors did not respond to requests for comment.
Workers at the company’s plant would have more free time and be able to meet production targets faster if line speeds and staff levels increased again, Morgan said. He noted that the workers, who are paid by the hour, worked six days a week to meet production targets.
The plant’s maximum slaughter capacity fell by around 7% to 17,700 pigs per week after the court ruling took effect, said Steve Meyer, economist for consultancy Partners for Production Agriculture .
Nationally, the pork industry has lost 2.5% of its slaughter capacity, the National Pork Producers Council said.
(Reporting by Tom Polansek; Editing by Dan Grebler)