USDA extends line speed trial

The U.S. Department of Agriculture decided to allow eligible pork harvest facilities to continue experimenting with ergonomics, automation, and crewing while maintaining line speeds that have been proven able to protect food and worker safety for over two decades.

“Ensuring sufficient harvest capacity is critical to allow America’s pork producers to continue to provide wholesome pork products to consumers,” said the National Pork Producers Council in a statement. “This extension will allow USDA to assess a final report of the data collected during the time-limited trial and determine next steps. NPPC appreciates the extension of the trial period and will continue working with the administration and Congress towards a permanent solution.”

This extension comes after a spring of 2022 announcement from USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) approving the Clemens Food Group pork packing plant in Coldwater, Michigan, to run faster line speeds under a one-year trial program. The trial initially let four plants operate with faster harvesting line speeds, which could increase packing capacity and alleviate supply issues in the face of strong pork demand. 

FSIS established the line speeds program last November, after a provision in USDA’s 2019 New Swine Inspection System (NSIS) was struck down by a U.S. District Court in March 2021. Nine pork packing plants that had adopted the NSIS — six of which were operating with faster line speeds — were allowed to apply for the program, under which they need to collect data on the effects of the faster speeds on workers and share it with USDA and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The information could be used to formulate a new regulation for allowing plants to run faster line speeds. 

According to Iowa State University economist Dermot Hayes, if six plants are in the program, the aggregate impact on U.S. pork harvest capacity will be a 3.6% expansion. After one year, that would translate into an increase in live hog prices of 6%.

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