By Katie Peikes, Iowa Public Radio
Iowa’s senior U.S. senator says he wants the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Justice to appeal a recent federal court ruling that keeps pork plants from operating faster processing line speeds.
A federal judge in March struck down a provision of swine slaughter inspection regulations that allows some pork processors to operate “maximum line speeds.” The judge ruled the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service didn’t take workers’ safety into account.
The USDA says it won’t appeal that ruling. Pork processors that operate under those regulations will need to slow down their lines by the end of June to a maximum of 1,106 hogs per hour.
Republican Chuck Grassley said six pork processing plants that are under that provision will have to reduce their output, which means they’ll buy and process fewer hogs from producers.
“That’s all going to reduce national packing capacity by two and a half percent,” Grassley said. “Now that doesn’t sound like a lot, does it? But it will create a surplus of hogs on the market.”
Trent Thiele, a small hog producer in Howard County who ships his pigs to two of the six plants, said the USDA’s decision to not fight the ruling is “a little troubling for me here.” Thiele said Wednesday he had called a packer to move some of their pigs that had grown faster than he had anticipated. If line speeds are reduced, “that option is going to be out for us,” he said.
“On the flip side, if [the processing plants] are not going to be looking for pigs, they’re not going to be bidding for pigs to give me a better price for my pigs,” Thiele said.
Thiele owns 31 percent of a hog operation that he shares with other pork producers. He said the farm is in line to market 120,000 pigs to packers this year.
“If the packers won’t give us a very good price for our pigs because they don’t have to or they can’t, it just makes it tougher,” Thiele said. “It drives everything towards larger producers.”
Dave Stender, a swine specialist with Iowa State University Extension, said the impact of slower processing speeds likely won’t be problematic until a year from fall.
“Sows breed better in cooler weather. Typically [fall] is when extra pigs come to market and the price goes down,” Stender said, adding fall is when producers need to get more pigs into the packing plants they work with. “If you lose capacity, then … the market goes down faster.”
Grassley plans to send a letter to the USDA and Department of Justice next week, asking them to appeal and stay the district court’s ruling. He said he hopes to get other lawmakers on board.
“We’re going to get as many signatures as we can,” Grassley said. “I hope it’s bipartisan. It’ll make it stronger.”