Article on Farm Journals Pork written by Jennifer Shike.
 
The Federal Court’s decision to block USDA’s New Swine Inspection System (NSIS) line speed rule because of a technicality was a key issue raised during the House Agriculture Committee’s hearing on the state of the livestock industry on Oct. 7.
 
Rep. Jim Hagedorn (R-Minn.), called it “strange” that worker safety was being cited as one of the reasons for the rollback, noting that in plants operating at higher line speeds under the NSIS, many for more than 20 years, “worker injuries were reduced 86%.” 
 
“I think that’s a pretty good record and something I think we would want to continue,” Hagedorn said. “Six facilities around the country have been operating under these higher line speeds for like 20 years and one of them is in my district in Austin, Minn., -Quality Pork Processing.”
 
On July 1, NSIS plants slowed down line speeds and, in some cases, by 200 head per hour. Hagedorn said that hurt independent pork producers, consumers and workers.
 
“The result is that we lost 2.5% of production, which is the equivalent, believe it or not, of one plant,” he said. “We need more capacity. And now we’re down one plant because of this inaction.
 
Waiver Woes
He questioned USDA’s July announcement of its intent to invest $500 million in American Rescue Plan funds to expand meat and poultry processing capacity so that farmers, ranchers and consumers have more choices in the marketplace.
 
“It seems to make not a lot of sense, because you could have just handled the situation and avoid the need to spend taxpayer dollars,” Hagedorn said. “What’s the status of that criteria as far as these waivers?”
 
Vilsack responded that USDA is in discussions with affected facilities and workers to establish a waiver for NSIS facilities that agree to certain conditions.
“We did try to work and continue to work with, actually the facility in your district,” Vilsack responded. “They sat down with workers and said, ‘Let’s be creative about this, let’s not have to choose between worker safety, food safety and pork profits. Let’s figure out how we can do all three.’”
 
Vilsack said they came up with a proposal that USDA is in the processing, but it could create structure for a waiver that the five impacted facilities could adopt.
 
Hagedorn also criticized Vilsack for ignoring a letter by more than 70 lawmakers from both chambers urging him to intervene to prevent lower line speeds and asked him what the status is of an effort to provide line speed waivers.
 
“I apologize for not responding to your letter,” Vilsack said of the letter, reiterating that USDA is “under an injunction, so it’s not a situation where we have the ability to tell a federal judge that we’re not going to comply with the injunction.” 
 
Thompson Questions Consistency
Meanwhile, Ranking Member GT Thompson (R-Pa.) said he supported moves to increase meat processing capacity but questioned whether a Biden administration decision not to contest a ruling eliminating higher pork line speeds are consistent with that goal. 
 
He asked Vilsack what is being done to “remedy the situation” for pork producers and processors impacted by the reduction in processing capacity due to lower line speeds. 
 
“The Department of Justice (DOJ) makes these decisions,” Vilsack responded, saying the Trump administration made what courts deemed “a fatal error” in not putting forward data on impacts to worker safety. “We’re now working with both the industry and those who represent workers to try to figure out ways in which we can balance — appropriately — the need for worker safety, food safety and farmer profits.” 
 
It’s Time to Rectify the Line Speed Issue
Missouri pig farmer Scott Hayes, vice president of the National Pork Producers Council, testified on behalf of U.S. pig farmers, said the court decision on line speeds shifts market leverage away from hog farmers. 
 
“As hog farmers, we benefit from more harvest capacity as plants push up prices to attract hogs. Conversely, we lose market leverage when harvest capacity decreases. So, we are pleased that the administration and members of Congress from both sides of the aisle are looking for ways to expand pork harvest capacity. Rectifying the line speed issue is important.”
 
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Line Speed Issue Raises Ruckus at House Ag Committee Hearing