On December 2nd, 2019, the pork industry will be able to take advantage of a new standard for regulating the inspection of hogs during the slaughter process. In September of this year, it was announced the Trump administration would be allowing the USDA to fully implement this new rule.
According to the FDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the “New Swine Inspection System” (NSIS) is designed to “make better use of agency resources” and “remove unnecessary regulatory obstacles to industry innovation by revoking maximum line speeds.” This move towards modernization, however, brings some alarming changes.
The central provision of this new rule allows for the removal of government inspectors from the processing line in hog slaughterhouses, replacing them with “establishment personnel.” Plant workers will now be responsible for inspecting and removing diseased hogs before they are slaughtered, as well as inspecting and removing infected areas of the carcasses.
FSIS rationalizes that this will free up federal inspectors to operate elsewhere, and their bulletin on the Federal Register explains their logic. “As a result, under NSIS, FSIS can assign fewer inspectors to online inspection, freeing up Agency resources to conduct more offline inspection activities that are more effective in ensuring food safety."
The agency implies that federal dollars are better spent elsewhere, placing more weight on internal accountability. The problem is that there is little evidence to show that trusting the industry to self-regulate and take a larger role in preventing foodborne illness will be successful.
The rule is going to be implemented after the completion of a pilot program where certain plants were allowed to test the New Swine Inspection System. The program fell short of its goal of providing a more modern and efficient method for processing and disease prevention, and there are several reports detailing this. A 2013 USDA Inspector General audit found many issues in swine plants using the new inspection system, known as “HIMP” facilities.
The report explains that “the swine HIMP program has shown no measurable improvement to the inspection process; the program was not studied during its first 15 years; three of five HIMP plants had some of the highest numbers of NRs [Noncompliance Records] nationwide; and one plant was allowed to forgo an essential food safety procedure.” This report was from the USDA itself, but a report from Food and Water Watch found more disturbing trends while analyzing health violations in swine facilities over a five year period.
They found that 84% of all regulatory citations issued and 73% of all violations involving contamination with feces, bile, hair, and dirt issued during this period were found in HIMP plants. In the five HIMP plants involved in the study, Food and Water Watch found 32 instances where plant employees failed to properly identify infected swine carcasses. Over the study period, a total of 7,169 regulatory violations were issued to the HIMP facilities.
It was clear during the pilot program that the new swine inspection system did not meet its own criteria.
Reducing federal oversight within the facility is cause for concern, but the new rule also allows plants to control their own line speeds, rescinding previous limits on the rate at which hogs could be slaughtered. According to FSIS, the NSIS rule adds efficiency to the slaughtering process by “revoking maximum line speeds and authorizing establishments to determine their own line speeds based on their ability to maintain process control for preventing fecal contamination and meeting microbial performance measures for carcasses.”
Establishment personnel will not only have the added task of identifying diseased hogs and carcasses during the slaughter process but will now have to do this at faster rates. The privatization of the inspection line, whilst ramping up the allowed “hpm” (“hogs per minute”) going to slaughter, poses a risk to consumers, plant workers, and the humane treatment of animals. For the consumer, the threat here is clear, faster line speeds and less federal oversight make it harder to prevent harmful foodborne diseases.
A Washington Post report on this change detailed a conversation with a federal USDA hog inspector, Joe Ferguson, who had experienced this change during the pilot program. “All the power gets handed over to the plant,” Ferguson said. “I saw the alleged inspections that were performed by plant workers; they weren’t inspections. They were supposed to meet or exceed USDA standards—I never saw that happen.”
Despite the data and alarming reports, the rule was implemented.
This rule is not an anomaly. Last year, the FSIS increased the limit on line speeds in chicken plants. Like the new hog rule, chicken plants, after meeting certain safety and inspection conditions, can increase their line speeds.
The National Chicken Council believes wholeheartedly in the FSIS inspection requirements. On its website, the organization voices its approval for the regulatory agency’s capability. “These food safety and inspection systems, coupled with the industry’s commitment to producing the safest food possible, means that consumers can feel confident that the U.S. chicken supply is among the safest in the world,” reads the statement.
This happy relationship between the regulating agency and the association representing the largest chicken processors in the country is great for business, but consumers have reason to be concerned.
In October alone, there were ten USDA-issued recalls on meat products. While some of these recalls were due to mislabeling or undeclared allergens, many of them were for possible salmonella, E.coli, “foreign matter” contamination, or unsanitary conditions. In June, an outbreak of E.coli resulted in 209 people infected. After extensive laboratory testing, the outbreak was finally linked to ground beef, but scientists were unable to determine an exact plant.
In February, a Salmonella outbreak linked to various sources of chicken resulted in one death and infected another 128 people. Scientists again were unable to determine where exactly the infected chicken came from. Right now, there is a Salmonella outbreak, also linked to ground beef, with ten people infected and one death reported.
These are just the regulatory failures that the public is able to see. Slaughterhouses and meat processing plants notoriously prohibit press access. Though heavily regulated, it is difficult to verify the humane treatment of animals, workers, and sanitary food handling. Reducing federal oversight only further shields these operations from public view.
USDA press releases rationalize the changes as ways to “modernize” and “promote innovation”. This positive spin is intended to detract from the underlying theme. Increasing the rate of production while reducing federal oversight in processing is a dangerous combination. This streamlining of animal slaughter might help lower meat prices and benefit bottom lines, but the industry has yet to prove that it can properly self-regulate.
These modifications to federal policy happen without input from the public and occur quietly below the consumer’s radar. There has been no notice to the public that families will now be eating pork inspected with the NSIS, a system with a statistically higher rate of failure. The benefits of these new deregulatory efforts appear to benefit massive corporations while adding hazardous risks for the consumer, industry workers, and animals.
A Freedom of Information Act request by Food and Water Watch revealed a recent FSIS effort to modify and deregulate the cattle inspection process in the beef industry. The trend towards deregulation is clear, but what is the driving force behind this wave of new rules that benefit the meatpacking industry? Is there an organized push from consumers to streamline or modernize the massive factory-like slaughterhouses? Are meat prices a highly contested issue in need of intervention?
It does not appear so. It appears these changes come at the behest of organizations representing the largest players in the industry and serve to benefit the meat oligopoly in our country.