This week, EPI Director of Policy Heidi Shierholz and Associate Labor Counsel Marni von Wilpert submitted comments to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) urging them to withdraw a proposed rule that would allow for an unlimited increase in hog slaughter line speeds.
On February 1, 2018, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) proposed regulations to create the New Swine Inspection System (NSIS), which would allow for an unlimited increase in hog slaughter line speeds—putting public health, worker safety, and animal welfare at risk. In their comments, Shierholz and von Wilpert strongly oppose the proposed Modernization of Swine Slaughter Inspection rule, or any increase in maximum allowable line speeds in hog slaughter facilities above the current allowed 1,106 head per hour, and urge the USDA to withdraw this proposed rule.
“Meat slaughter and processing is a high hazard industry,” said Shierholz. “The pork industry is already one of the most dangerous for workers, who work in cold, wet, noisy, and slippery conditions making tens of thousands of forceful repetitive motions using knives, hooks, and saws. The USDA should protect slaughtering line workers and ensure food safety by withdrawing the Modernization of Swine Slaughter Inspection proposed rule.”
Increasing line speeds without hiring additional workers will almost surely lead to an even greater rate of injuries and illnesses among meatpacking workers. Using Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, the authors estimate that there were 4,731 nonfatal occupational injuries and 2,747 nonfatal occupational illnesses in hog slaughtering plants in 2016. A paper by University of California-Davis professor J. Paul Leigh found that the average medical and indirect cost of nonfatal job-related injuries and illnesses was $25,670 for injuries and $31,326 for illnesses. Using this data, Shierholz and von Wilpert find that even a 1 percent increase in nonfatal injuries and illnesses as a result of the rule would increase costs by more than two million dollars annually. Notably, this is a conservative estimate, because it does not take into account the potential for increased fatalities or the fact that BLS itself acknowledges that their estimates of workplace injuries and illnesses are likely substantial under-counts.
The authors note that the proposed rule has also moved forward without sufficient data or review, and should be rescinded. The USDA released the proposed rule before the agency completed the required peer review of the risk assessment upon which this rule is based. To adequately assess the rule’s full impact on public health, a final peer-reviewed risk assessment must be completed and available to the public for comment. In addition, USDA must make publicly available any data it has about the risks to workers.
“For the sake of keeping hard-working people safe from harm and making sure the pork we eat is safe, we ask the USDA to extend the comment period until a peer-reviewed risk assessment is complete,” said von Wilpert. “In order to protect worker safety, public health, and animal welfare, we urge the USDA to oppose any line-speed increases in hog slaughter plants and withdraw the proposed Modernization of Swine Slaughter Inspection rule.”