Grassley pushes for appeal of meatpacking line speeds ruling

By: - June 10, 2021 11:45 am

Tyson Foods is facing new challenges in its effort to dispose of lawsuits accusing the company of failing to protect workers from injury and death due to COVID-19. (Photo provided by Tyson Fresh Meats)

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley said he is asking Senate colleagues to sign a letter asking the Biden administration to appeal a judge’s ruling banning higher line speeds at meatpacking plants. 

“So far, no Democrats have joined me in that effort,” Grassley, R-Iowa, told reporters on a phone call Wednesday. “And that’s very disappointing, because it’s going to affect profitability, it’s going to affect cost to consumers and stuff like that. I think it’s a pretty serious situation.”

The Biden administration has said it won’t appeal the federal judge’s March ruling, which was condemned by hog farmers and praised by the union representing most packing plant workers. Public Citizen and  the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union had sued over a move to increase line speeds at a JBS plant in Ottumwa.

Grassley’s comments focused on the possible economic damage to the industry. He did not discuss worker safety issues. 

Grassley said the U.S. Department of Agriculture, overseen by former Iowa governor and current U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, is not charged with enforcing safety at the plants under the Administrative Procedures Act of 1946. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is.

The judge, Grassley said, ruled safety is USDA’s concern and reinstated line-speed limits then-President Donald Trump had moved to lift. Plants were ordered to return speeds to a previously set limit, 1,106 animals per hour, by June 30. 

The court ruled the federal government had failed to properly consider worker safety issues. The Biden administration has said it doesn’t plan to appeal.

That change could have far-reaching impacts on the financial health of the packing companies, Grassley told reporters in response to a question. He did not mention packing-plant workers’ concerns about injuries they blame on high line speeds.

“That’s going to slow down the chain for slaughtering hogs by 2.5%,” Grassley said. “That doesn’t sound like much, but a professor at Iowa State University said that is going to cost farmers $23 a (hog), and the industry $83 million (this year).” The ISU study was completed by economist Dermot Hayes. 

The National Pork Producers Council has said the ruling will hurt small and medium-sized hog farms the most, and will give packers even more power.

In a letter drafted for supporters of the appeal, the council wrote: “The resulting surplus and reduced demand in a concentrated geographic region will shift economic power to pork processing companies. The culmination of economic losses from the pandemic, multiple years of trade retaliation, and the court’s decision may result in some producers selling their operation. By failing to act, USDA will drive consolidation in the pork industry.”

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.