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Cargill, Schuyler

The Cargill meatpacking plant in Schuyler in 2008.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Tuesday finalized a new rule reducing the number of food safety inspectors in pork slaughter plants and eliminating limits on line speeds, sparking warnings that the deregulation puts both workers and consumers at risk.

"This regulatory change allows us to ensure food safety while eliminating outdated rules and allowing for companies to innovate," Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said.

On the contrary, Nebraska Appleseed argued the change is "a step backward toward the days of Upton Sinclair's 'The Jungle'" and will jeopardize food safety while increasing the likelihood of more permanent and often crippling injuries for workers.

Pork processing plants are scattered across Nebraska and employ a largely immigrant work force.

USDA said its new rules would shift more of the food safety responsibilities to workers and the industry argued that it could implement more advanced food safety requirements.

In response, Appleseed said the rule would allow companies to inspect their own product "without any requirements for employee training in fecal contamination, bacteria and disease."

Workers who are laboring on rapidly moving production lines already "suffer permanent, crippling injuries at alarming rates," Appleseed stated.

Food safety concerns include "a higher risk for major outbreaks of salmonella, listeria, E. coli and other food-borne bacteria," the advocacy organization said. 

The deregulation "threatens to put workers in grave danger of serious injuries," Human Rights Watch stated.

In response to a recent Human Rights Watch report on conditions in meatpacking plants, a worker in a Nebraska pork processing plant told the Journal Star two weeks ago that the plant has been operating at increasingly higher speeds and experiencing a greater number of injuries.

The plant processes 10,700 pigs in a workday of 8½ hours, he said, or more than a thousand pigs an hour. 

"More pigs, less hours, more injuries," he said.

The worker asked to remain anonymous to protect his job. 

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or dwalton@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSDon.

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