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Judge upholds FSIS new swine inspection system 

By: Sydney Sheffield 

In a recent legal battle, a federal judge has ruled in favor of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), upholding the adoption of the New Swine Inspection System (NSIS). Several animal rights and environmental organizations challenged the final rule, which addresses the modernization of inspection at market hog slaughter establishments.

In October 2019, NSIS was established as a voluntary system that allows employee involvement in ante-mortem and post-mortem sorting activities before federal inspection. It also allows plants to set their own line speeds based on their ability to maintain process control. But in March 2021, a court order issued by the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota vacated the component of NSIS that eliminated line speed limits for participating establishments. 

As a result, all NSIS establishments were required to operate at line speeds not exceeding 1,106 heads per hour as of June 30, 2021. In consultation with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, FSIS invited NSIS establishments to participate in a time-limited trial in November 2021. This allowed the establishments to operate at an increased line speed while collecting and submitting data that would be used to evaluate the impact of increased line speed on workers. FSIS contracted with third-party experts in worker safety to evaluate the data submitted by the NSIS establishments.

The plaintiffs of the case include Farm Sanctuary, Animal Equity, Animal Legal Defense Fund, Center for Biological Diversity, Mercy for Animals, Inc., North Carolina Farmed Animal Save and Animal Outlook. The groups alleged the rule, "will allow nearly all of the pigs slaughtered in the United States to be slaughtered at unlimited speeds with very little federal oversight, posing serious risks to animal welfare, consumer health and safety, and the environment.”

In the legal proceedings, the judge dismissed the plaintiffs’ contentions, pointing out that NSIS did not violate existing acts and that FSIS adequately considered animal welfare concerns during the rule’s adoption. The ruling explained that FSIS responded to comments, provided reasonable explanations for choices made along the way, and did not ignore concerns related to training and humane handling. 

"Simply because Plaintiffs disagree with the adoption of the NSIS based on animal welfare concerns does not make Defendants' adopting of the Final Rule arbitrary and capricious. It is clear to the Court that Defendants considered this issue in connection with promulgating the Final Rule, including by responding to comments raising animal welfare concerns. Defendants gave adequate explanations for the choices made, and that is all that is required," the Judge wrote

In late November 2023, FSIS announced it would extend time-limited trials at USDA’s NSIS establishments for up to an additional 90 days while the study is being designed by a team of experts. This action was supported by many in the pork industry. The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) President and Missouri pork producer Scott Hays stated, “Amidst a historically dire pork market, we thank Secretary Vilsack for his actions to preserve harvest capacity, which provides market power to producers when selling hogs. Without the extension, pork producers would incur additional losses of nearly $10/head in Q1 and Q2 2024.”

Read the judge’s ruling here