Tom Vilsack is expected to soon be confirmed to again serve as Secretary of Agriculture, but in the meantime, some important decisions are getting made involving swine production line speeds. Earlier this week, the new Biden Administration surrendered faster line speeds for poultry inspection that had been a key element of USDA’s poultry slaughter modernization going back to Vilsack’s last turn as Secretary of Agriculture.

Modernization initiatives including line speed increases were advanced by the last two administrations–for poultry in 2014 and market hogs in 2019.

And at 2 p.m. on Feb.11 in the Western District of New York, Federal Judge Elizabeth A. Wolford is going to hear oral arguments via “Zoom for Government” on USDA’s motion to dismiss a 2019 lawsuit challenging not only the line speed but the entire new rule modernizing swine slaughter.  

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) first announced the New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS) on July 21, 2014, during the period when Vilsack previously served as Secretary of Agriculture. It was first to offer the possibility of greater line speed, which has now been erased for poultry. The NPIS was then touted as an updated science-based inspection system that positions food safety inspectors throughout poultry facilities in a smarter way.

“The United States has been relying on a poultry inspection model that dates back to 1957, while rates of foodborne illness due to Salmonella and Campylobacter remain stubbornly high. The system we are announcing today imposes stricter requirements on the poultry industry and places our trained inspectors where they can better ensure food is being processed safely. These improvements make use of sound science to modernize food safety procedures and prevent thousands of illnesses each year,” Vilsack said then.

A bevy of animal advocacies led by Farm Sanctuary sued then FSIS Administrator Carmen Rottenberg, seeking to erase the new swine rule entirely for allegedly violating federal administrative procedures. Department of Justice (DOJ) attorneys moved for dismissal in March 2020 and Judge Wolford on Dec. 21, 2020, scheduled the dismissal motion for oral arguments.

The lawsuit did not really move much during 2020, but clearly seeks to knock down the higher line speed for swine slaughter and the entire rule that goes with it.

“For decades, USDA regulation has set a maximum line speed for pig slaughterhouses — an hourly cap on the number of animals that can be sent down the conveyor line to be stunned, shackled, hoisted, stabbed, bled out, scalded, and dismembered,”  says the Plaintiffs’ complaint adding that:

  • “Federal law mandates that these animals be inspected by federal inspectors at multiple points in the slaughter process, including upon arrival at the slaughterhouse and at the time of stunning and slaughter. The USDA determines line speeds based on the number of animals an inspector is able to inspect.
  • “For many years, the USDA has allowed slaughterhouses to kill up to 1,106 pigs per hour. Voluminous documentation — much of it from the USDA itself — makes clear that even under this standard pig slaughterhouses frequently defy humane handling and food safety requirements, including by failing to properly render animals unconscious before they are shackled, have their throats slit, and are put into scalding tanks, and by routinely beating and electro-shocking pigs to keep them moving at a fast pace. Despite this evidence, the Slaughter Rule removes this line speed limit — while also reducing the number of federal inspectors on the slaughter line. 
  • “The Slaughter Rule further imperils animal welfare and human health by re-assigning critical inspection responsibilities to untrained slaughterhouse workers that by law are required to be conducted by USDA inspectors. Federal law requires defendants to ensure the humane handling of pigs from the time their transport trucks approach the slaughterhouse gates until their death. To ensure humane handling, and to protect human health and safety, Congress requires USDA inspectors to examine and inspect each and every pig before the animal enters a slaughter establishment.
  • “The USDA has underscored that these agency inspections are the best way to detect potentially devastating diseases and to prevent widespread economic harm and disruption of the meat supply. Despite this recognition — and at the very same time that the agency is preparing to respond to the possibility of an outbreak of an African swine fever, which it recognizes as a devastating, deadly disease that would significantly impact the U.S. economy — the USDA, through the Slaughter Rule, has abdicated this statutory responsibility and re-assigned these inspection duties to the very slaughterhouses it is supposed to regulate. 
  • “In promulgating the Slaughter Rule, the USDA failed to examine voluminous data demonstrating the many ways that animals, humans, and the environment will suffer as a result of its deregulatory move. Moreover, by requiring that untrained, overworked slaughterhouse employees, rather than federal inspectors, identify, sort, and remove live animals, the Slaughter Rule impermissibly delegates inspection responsibilities, in violation of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.”

But the government attorneys representing FSIS don’t see it that way, even claiming that the “plaintiff’s opposition confirms that the court  should dismiss this case.”

“Under their theory of organizational injury, plaintiffs — which advocate on behalf of animals—would have standing because they disagree with the substance of the Final Rule that they challenge,” the FSIS brief says  “But organizations are not injured because they disagree with a policy or because they dislike a policy’s alleged effects. This is especially true when, as here, those organizations exist for the very purpose of advocating against government policies. Otherwise, any organization could challenge any government action that the organization believes is bad policy.”

The DOJ says the claims of an information injury just fails short period.  And the animal groups’ claim of associational standing also fails and their claim that more foodborne illnesses will occur is “misplaced.”

The government claims the animal groups have not shown associational standing, their alleged injuries are speculative, along with their theory of increased foodborne illnesses.

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