MINNEAPOLIS – A federal court vacated a provision of the New Swine Slaughter Inspection System (NSIS) that enabled pork processors to establish maximum line speeds.

The US District Court for the District of Minnesota ruled that the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) violated the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) when the agency failed to consider whether increasing line speeds would harm workers.

“When FSIS proposed the NSIS, it expressly identified worker safety as an important consideration and requested public comment on whether increasing line speeds would harm workers,” said US District Judge Joan Ericksen. “Then, after receiving many comments raising worker safety concerns, FSIS rejected the comments and eliminated line speed limits without considering worker safety. In doing so, the agency failed to satisfy the APA’s requirement of reasoned decision-making.

“Therefore, the Court will vacate the Final Rule’s elimination of line speed limits under the NSIS…but will not set aside any other aspect of the Final Rule.”

Additionally, the court placed a 90-day stay on its order and entry of judgment to allow USDA-FSIS “...time to decide how to proceed in light of this opinion and give regulated entities time to prepare for any operational change.”

The North American Meat Institute (NAMI), which supported the NSIS, said in a statement:

“The Meat Institute is disappointed in the ruling, especially following the 20 years of study through the pilot, the HACCP-Based Inspection Model Project (HIMP). We are still reading through the order and do not know of USDA’s next steps.”

United Food and Commercial Workers International (UFCW) and Public Citizen, both opponents of NSIS, hailed the ruling as a victory for worker safety.

“America’s essential workers in pork plants across the country have put their health and safety at risk every day during this pandemic to help families put food on the table,” said Marc Perrone, UFCW International president. “Today’s ruling is a victory for all of these brave men and women, finally ending the dangerous Trump USDA policy that allowed pork plants to push workers to the breaking point with unsafe line speeds that increase the risk of injury and put the safety of our food supply in jeopardy.

“With the success of this lawsuit, our country’s essential workers have sent a powerful message that the safety of America’s food and workers is not for sale and that these companies will finally be forced to stop these dangerous practices,” Perrone said.

In October of 2019, Public Citizen Litigation Group represented four UFCW local unions and UFCW International, which represents 33,000 workers in the pork processing industry, in a lawsuit challenging NSIS. According to the complaint, “The Rule dramatically alters the way in which pigs are slaughtered and processed for human consumption in the United States, abandoning protections for American workers and consumers that have been in place for decades.

“The Rule entirely eliminates maximum line speeds and reduces the number of government-employed “online” safety inspectors on the lines by forty percent, instead allowing the plants to use their own employees — with no required training — to monitor compliance with health and safety standards.”

FSIS’s position is that the rule is an improvement on hog slaughter effectiveness. NSIS makes better use of the agency’s resources and enables industry innovation by establishing maximum line speeds while allowing processors to reconfigure evisceration lines, FSIS said. Companies can choose to operate under their existing inspection system, but all pork processors are required to develop sampling plans tailored to their specific operations.

FSIS argued that NSIS would result in a lower prevalence of Salmonella on market hog carcasses and thus lead to fewer human foodborne illnesses. Several consumer groups challenged this assertion after obtaining data they said showed that plants in the NSIS pilot project had significantly more regulatory violations for fecal and digestive matter on carcasses than traditional plants. NAMI disputed the groups’ interpretation of that data.