Proposal to Remove Pork Processing Plant Line Speeds Flawed, Experts Say

The experts claim that the USDA relied on flawed worker safety data to justify its proposal.
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Proposal to Remove Pork Processing Plant Line Speeds Flawed, Experts Say

Experts from Texas State University claim that the USDA used flawed worker safety data in its proposal to remove maximum line speeds at pork processing plants nationwide. FSIS, they allege, relied on a faulty comparison between traditional plants and five specific plants in the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points Inspection Models Project (HIMP), a 1990s pilot program allowing faster processing times, to reach its conclusions.

In a recent report, Celeste Monforton, a lecturer in the department of health and human performance, and Phillip W. Vaughan, a research scientist in methodology, measurement and statistical analytics, claim that data limitations make the conclusions drawn by the USDA "statistically impossible." 

Between 2002 and 2010, they note, only 56 of the 612 pork processing plants nationwide were required to submit their annual injury rate to OSHA; data from consecutive years was only available for eight of the 24 traditional plants examined by FSIS in reaching its conclusions. Two of the five HIMP plants, meanwhile, did not provide worker injury data for consecutive years.

In addition, the five HIMP plants were self-nominated, meaning that they likely differ from traditional plants in a number of ways.

“FSIS’s analysis inappropriately assumes that the plants are comparable in every way except for their HIMP status,” the experts write.

In a December 5 press release from advocacy group the National Employment Law Project (NELP), program director Debbie Berkowitz claims that the “faulty” analysis will “clearly endanger workers.”

“Before any new proposal is finalized, USDA must conduct a new analysis of the impact of line speed increases on worker safety,” she writes. “The agency should withdraw the current proposal until that is complete.”

The proposal, submitted by the USDA in January, was heavily criticized from the outset, with the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health noting that meatpacking workers experience occupational injuries 17 times more frequently than the national average.

“Workers who bring food to our tables deserve safety and dignity on the job, and consumers deserve and demand safe food,” Jessica Martinez, National COSH co-executive director, said in a press release. “Raising line speeds in pork-processing plants will only make a bad situation worse.”

The current maximum line speed at pork-processing facilities is 1,106 hogs per hour. The national average hovers between 950 and 1,000 hogs per hour; new line speeds could reach an estimated 1,295 hogs per hour.

The proposal joins similar initiatives to lift the cap on line speeds at chicken processing plants. In September, the USDA established new guidelines that would allow some slaughterhouses to apply for a waiver to increase the 140-chicken-per-minute cap to 175 chickens per minute.

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