Trump administration uses faulty data to speed up meatpacking production

More than 1,100 hogs slaughtered every hour as the pandemic cuts a deadly swath through the workforce

Published July 6, 2020 4:00AM (EDT)

Worker in protective gear producing sausage at the Okraina meat processing plant in Murmansk.  (Lev Fedoseyev\TASS via Getty Images)
Worker in protective gear producing sausage at the Okraina meat processing plant in Murmansk. (Lev Fedoseyev\TASS via Getty Images)

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A recent investigation found that Team Trump may have used unsuitable data to analyze worker safety to promote a rule that allows meatpacking plants to eliminate federal limits on how quickly workers can slaughter hogs.

The report by the USDA Office of Inspector General was released as coronavirus cases soar in meatpacking plants. At least 102 meatpacking workers have died, according to the Food & Environment Reporting Network. More than 30,000 meatpacking workers have tested positive for COVID-19, including 170 workers at Quality Pork Processors, Inc. in Austin, Minn., and 1,031 at Tyson Foods pork plant in Waterloo, Iowa, where at least five workers have died.

"The inspector general's report provides an additional reason why the rule eliminating the maximum line speeds cannot stand," said Adam Pulver, an attorney for Public Citizen which in representing unions in a lawsuit over the rule.

Team Trump's lack of concern about workers who process pigs into the bacon and pork chops we eat is akin to Trump's no-testing policy for the coronavirus.

Trump's Food Safety and Inspection Service, the part of the Agriculture Department that is supposed to serve as the public health arm to ensure a safe supply of commercial meat, poultry and eggs, called the audit "misguided."  The agency said a 2011 executive order from President Barack Obama about reviewing regulations and guidelines about information quality didn't apply to "preliminary analysis" that it said was not used as a "foundation" to write the new rule.

"Pink slime" expert in charge

Mindy Brashears, the star witness for a South Dakota beef processor in its "pink slime" defamation lawsuit against ABC News, is the Senate-confirmed head of the Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Quality Pork Producers' Austin, Minn., plant, which supplies meat to a nearby Hormel Foods plant, was one of five hog slaughterhouses that participated in pilot study for the USDA about how fast workers could process slaughtered hogs. The previous limit for slaughtering lines for pork plants that could implement the new system was 1,106 hogs an hour.

The agency claimed that Quality Pork Producers and the four other slaughterhouses with higher line speeds had lower average numbers of reported injuries for three federal rates of injury and illness than traditional plants operating at slower speeds.

No data for 9 out 10 years

But the audit found that the data used in the analysis were incomplete. Injury and illness rates were available for only one year out of a decade in three of the 24 traditional plants used in the analysis. Only one of the 29 plants—the plants operating at faster and slower speeds—had data for the entire decade. The agency also didn't verify if the data were accurate.

Studies funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health identify line speed as a leading cause of worker cuts.

Organizations asked for the methodology and data behind the analysis when the rule was proposed, but the Trump USDA wouldn't produce it while the proposal was being commented on. In the final rule, published Oct. 1, the agency said it lacked the authority and expertise to regulate worker safety. The rule took effect on Dec. 2.

No valid conclusion

Two experts from Texas State University also analyzed the materials used in the worker safety analysis and concluded it was "impossible for FSIS to draw any statistically valid conclusion about worker injury rate differences."

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union, three of its locals and the AFL-CIO sued tbe USDA over the rule, saying eliminating the speed limit for slaughtering hogs would cause more worker injuries. Meatpacking workers have the highest rate of occupational illness of any private industry in our nation, and that was before the coronavirus.

Judge Joan Ericksen, who was nominated by President George W. Bush, ruled in April that the part of the lawsuit about line speed could go forward but dismissed two other claims. FSIS now is asking the judge to put the case on hold so the agency can address concerns about worker safety.

By Sarah Okeson

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