USDA to hog slaughterhouses: Choose your own (faster) production speed

Pig on a farm

Photo by Chris Palmquist

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) has clear authority from the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) of 1906 (amended by the Wholesome Meat Act of 1967) to protect consumers from unsafe and unwholesome meat products. However, since at least the beginning of the Clinton administration, the meat processing industry has lobbied USDA to implement the FMIA by delegating FSIS authority to meat industry management and employees, claiming that privatizing meat inspection and testing will “modernize” it. The kind of “modernization” FSIS and industry lobbyists envision is minimum government regulation and maximum industry self-regulation of inspection, testing and data reporting that determines whether the meat industry is complying with the FMIA.  

In January, FSIS proposed a rule, which, if finalized, will accommodate industry demands and allow plant management to determine the production line speed and configuration in swine slaughterhouses. According to the May 3 Politico agriculture newsletter, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents 6,500 hog slaughterhouse employees, wrote to FSIS to oppose the rule. The UCFW commented the rule would result in faster production line speeds, more worker injuries and greater likelihood of unsafe pork products, as faster line speeds impede thorough inspection.

We’ve been down this road to “modernization” before. In a May 2 comment on FSIS' proposed hog slaughter inspection rule, IATP briefly summarized a successful lawsuit against USDA in 2000 by federal meat inspectors and the Community Nutrition Institute, whose executive director was Rod Leonard, an IATP board member. The U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that USDA had violated the FMIA by replacing federal meat inspectors with plant employees and by reducing FSIS presence to veterinarian inspection of animals prior to slaughter and reviewing of plant management’s sanitary and food safety plans. The Court instructed USDA to come up with a FMIA-compliant way of delegating FSIS authorities. A 2002 Court ruling deferred to FSIS’ proposal for verifying compliance with the FMIA by creating a computer database (Public Health Information System or PHIS) that would show that a largely privatized meat and poultry inspection system would reduce harmful bacteria in meat more than would inspection and testing of meat and poultry samples by government employees.

The USDA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) and the General Accountability Office (GAO) have criticized the data quality and comprehensiveness of PHIS and its predecessor in several audits over a 15-year period. IATP’s comment cited a few of these audits, including an OIG audit about FSIS enforcement failures at swine slaughterhouses, which stated:

The Food Safety and Inspection Service’s (FSIS) enforcement policies do not deter swine slaughter plants from becoming repeat violators of the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA). As a result, plants have repeatedly violated the same regulations with little or no consequence. We found that in 8 of the 30 plants we visited, inspectors did not always examine the internal organs of carcasses in accordance with FSIS inspection requirements, or did not take enforcement actions against plants that violated food safety regulations. As a result, there is reduced assurance of FSIS inspectors effectively identifying pork that should not enter the food supply.

Nevertheless, FSIS decided to continue to largely privatize swine and poultry inspection in pilot projects, as it tried to improve PHIS. The proposed rule would allow an expansion of the privatized inspection system to all hog slaughterhouses.

IATP advised FSIS not to finalize the rule, particularly if the enforcement failures and PHIS reporting shortcomings continued. FSIS attempted to respond to the GAO and OIG criticism in a “Hog HIMP Report.” HIMP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point-Based Inspection Models Project) is an acronym for the privatized and “modernized” inspection system that would allow FSIS employees only to inspect plant food safety plans and livestock without interrupting the production line, except in extraordinary circumstances. However, the Hog HIMP Report design conflates data from PHIS and an earlier data reporting system that FSIS itself recognized to be incompatible with PHIS data collection and analysis. Furthermore, the report compared pathogen reduction data from five privatized inspection plants with data from 21 plants subject to inspection and testing by government employees.

IATP’s comment cited a February study by Food and Water Watch based on an analysis of five years of pathogenic bacteria data from five HIMP hog plants compared to the data from five slaughterhouses subject to government employee inspection and supervision. The study showed a stunning HIMP plant performance failure in eight FSIS-mandated reporting categories. IATP advised FSIS that the “apples-to-apples” data comparison in the Food and Water Watch study confirmed that the privatized inspection and testing system was weakening the consumer protection required by the FMIA.

Notwithstanding President Trump’s executive orders to require each federal agency to cut regulations categorically based on their cost to industry, IATP warned FSIS against finalizing the proposed rule as written. The legality of President Trump’s broad anti-regulatory executive orders is being challenged, so FSIS must act on its current authority and not regulate in anticipation of a court ruling favoring the President. IATP warned FSIS that the weak public health evidentiary basis for the rule, as documented by GAO, OIG and Food and Water Watch, left the rule open to another court challenge that could well be successful, even though presented to a conservative judiciary.

It’s unlikely that FSIS will withdraw or modify the rule to deny industry the authority to determine production line speed and deployment of line workers. Because many of those workers are immigrants or refugees, they are often reluctant to report injuries, and plant management suffers no great penalties for underreporting injuries.

It is possible to use whole genome sequencing to trace back the meat packing plant origin of foodborne illness, warn consumers against consuming meat retailed from that point of origin, and withdraw that product from the market. However, it is far more efficient and less costly to use stringent food safety controls to prevent contamination of meat products. The efficacy of these controls is greatly enhanced if plant employees are not working at a breakneck pace and if government inspectors, not dependent on the slaughterhouse for their paycheck, can effectively examine and test meat samples.

The overwhelming concern of the proposed rule is to show that FSIS has incorporated industry estimates of the cost of implementing the rule. This concern to accommodate industry demands is very unlikely to produce better public health outcomes than those that have been produced by what FSIS calls “traditional inspection.”