Less Regulation, Faster Line Speeds Could Compromise Pork Safety

Reprinted with permission from the Fall 2019 issue of The Prairie Progressive, Iowa’s oldest progressive newsletter.  The PP is  funded entirely by reader subscription,  available only in hard copy for $12/yr.  Send check to PP, Box 1945, Iowa City 52244.

Back to the Jungle 

by Marty Ryan

I will pay you $10.50 an hour to just stand outside by the parking meter for two and one-half hours. You don’t need to do a thing, or you may do anything you like, just as long as you don’t move one foot from the meter in any direction.” That was an offer I made to a farmer in the mid-1980s when we were on strike.

Farmland Foods in Denison, Iowa is a pork slaughter and processing plant. The wages were good when I worked there in the 1970s and early 1980s; I went from making $3.14 per hour in 1973 to making $10.50 an hour in the mid ‘80s. Before going on strike, we were not asking for a wage increase, we proposed a reasonable offer of keeping what we had. The company offered concessionary wages amounting to approximately three-quarters of what we were making. There were other demands by the company: cuts to our pension; increases in premiums for health insurance; and several proposals that did nothing more than pit employees in one department against employees of another.

The farmer did not take me up on my offer, he just crawled into his new Ford F-150 pickup with all the new bells and whistles available at the time and drove away. He had told me that no one was worthy of making over $10 per hour. Of course, I was making the point that it is not easy standing in the same place for 8 hours a day, getting a twelve-minute break after two and one-half hours, and a half-hour break after five hours.

This memory was triggered when I read a business news article last month about how the pork production industry was elated that a federal rule ended the limit on line speed. When I left the packing plant for greener acres in 1990, the line speed
was right around 1,000 head of hogs per hour. That’s over 16 hogs per minute – a breakneck speed as it is. Imagine performing the same task over and over and over again without a break for two and one half hours, only to get 12 minutes to use the restroom, and be back on the line again before that first hog after the break is in front of you (that 12 minutes includes removing safety equipment, removing aprons, rinsing off knives and washing hands). Try it at your desk, or at the kitchen table, or in the garden, or anywhere else where it’s possible to repeat something for a few hours. You barely have enough time to wipe the moisture off your forehead, much less keep your knife sharp.

As a union representative, I witnessed numerous repetitive motion injuries. These injuries were not limited to carpal tunnel syndrome, but included tendonitis, bursitis, shoulder injuries, back pain, and other maladies associated with doing something over and over and over again. In Iowa, you must report these injuries to the company nurse, who sends you to the company doctor, who diagnoses you with a sore arm and sends you back to work with a note that you are to be assigned “light duty” for a period of two weeks. Many of those socalled “light duty” tasks are just as damaging as the one that gave you the pain in the first place. A worker will often acquiesce and return to the job from which the employee complained of pain. That’s the company’s goal.

Now, the sky’s the limit on line speeds. The incentive to hold down line speed over the years has been meat inspection. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) meat inspectors, union men and women who are employed by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), who work aside company employees, ensure that the pork you eat is safe and clean. The only way meat inspectors can be sure that you’re getting disease-free wholesome pork is to examine each individual liver, lung, heart, and other internal and external organs and parts. The training manual is 58 pages. This is a separate matter that will be examined in the next Prairie Progressive.

The New Swine Inspection System, which went into effect on October 1st, allows pork slaughterhouses to have its own employees examine the offal and carcasses, thereby cutting out valuable independent inspectors. This process will create and encourage short cuts. Company supervisors are not as concerned about the safe supply and cleanliness of a final product as much as being concerned about a line not stopping.

One purpose of this new system is to cut down on the number of hours it takes to slaughter a certain number of hogs. Prior to the inception of this rule, a facility with a cooler capable of holding 10,000 carcasses would have to schedule 10 hours of work in order to fill the cooler. Now, with an unlimited rate, the cooler may fill up as soon as 10,000 hogs are slaughtered, probably in fewer than eight hours, thereby eliminating overtime costs.

In 113 years since Upton Sinclair wrote “The Jungle,” the only thing that has changed is the country of the immigrants working in slaughterhouses. — Marty Ryan is a native Iowan

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