Following the recommendation of a team of experts, the Agriculture Department said on Tuesday it would allow six pork processing plants to operate high-speed slaughter lines for an additional 90 days in an experiment that began two years ago. The test was intended to generate information on the impact of higher line speeds on worker safety, but the team of experts said there was not enough data yet.
The pork industry applauded the extension. It will prevent a slowdown in hog slaughter that would reduce pork supplies in the grocery store and lower prices paid to farmers for slaughter pigs, said the National Pork Producers Council. Hog slaughter would fall by 260,000 hogs, or 2.5%, per month in the first half of 2024, according to one estimate.
The Food Safety and Inspection Service said it was commissioning a study to independently generate data about worker safety in the six plants with higher-speed lines. The USDA agency said it would instruct the plants on requirements to continue high-speed lines during the 90 days, which start on Nov. 30. It said it “will follow up with additional communication to the public once the details of the study, including its duration, are determined.”
Higher line speeds were authorized as part of the USDA’s New Swine Inspection System, which allows packing plant employees to perform some of the work normally done by USDA inspectors to identify animals unfit for slaughter. The change would allow USDA inspectors to devote more time to test for prevention of bacterial or other contamination of the meat. A federal court in 2021 limited line speeds to 1,106 head per hour. In response, the USDA invited plants to take part in a trial that allowed higher line speeds if they collected information about worker safety.