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Pork industry soon will have more power over meat inspections

A 3-month-old pig in a pen in Iowa. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News)

The Trump administration plans to shift much of the power and responsibility for food safety inspections in hog plants to the pork industry as early as May, cutting the number of federal inspectors on slaughter lines in some plants by about 40 percent and replacing them with plant employees.

Under the proposed new inspection system, the responsibility for identifying diseased and contaminated pork would be shared with plant employees, whose training would be at the discretion of plant owners. There would be no limits on slaughter-line speeds.

The new pork inspection system would accelerate the federal government’s move toward delegating inspections to the livestock industry. During the Obama administration, poultry plant owners were given more power over safety inspections, although that administration canceled plans to increase line speeds. The Trump administration in September allowed some poultry plants to increase line speeds.

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The administration also is working to shift inspection of beef to plant owners. Agriculture Department officials are scheduled next month to discuss the proposed changes with the meat industry.

These proposals, part of the administration’s broader effort to reduce regulations, come as the federal government is under fire for delegating some of its aircraft safety oversight responsibilities to Boeing, which developed the 737 Max jets involved in two fatal crashes over the past six months. Federal Aviation Administration certification of the two aircraft involved in the crashes took place under President Trump, but the major shift toward delegating key aspects of aviation oversight began during the George W. Bush administration.

Pat Basu, the chief veterinarian with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service from 2016 to 2018, refused to sign off on the new pork system because of concerns about safety for consumers and livestock. The USDA sent the proposed regulations to the Federal Register about a week after Basu left, and they were published less than a month later, according to records and interviews.

“Look at the FAA. It took a year or so before the crashes happened,” Basu said. “This could pass, and everything could be okay for a while, until some disease is missed, and we have an outbreak all over the country. It would be an economic disaster that would be very hard to recover from.”

Basu’s top concern is with giving plant workers the responsibility for identifying and removing live diseased hogs when they arrive at the plants. He said that job should remain with trained USDA veterinarians so they can identify contagious diseases like foot-and-mouth disease, which can maim and destroy livestock, creating profound effects on the economy. One analysis by Kansas State University researchers determined such an outbreak could cost producers and the public $188 billion and state and federal governments $11 billion.

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The National Pork Producers Council, the association for the $20 billion pork industry, said the new system will create a more symbiotic relationship with USDA workers who will “partner with the pork industry to better ensure safe products are entering the marketplace,” according to an issues paper the trade group distributed on Capitol Hill.

USDA officials declined interview requests, saying they would not speak publicly about the new regulations until they are final.

In the past, officials in the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service have defended their efforts to transfer more control of food safety oversight to the pork industry. They said federal inspectors will spend less time assessing the quality of the pork, which will give them more time to look for disease and contamination.

Foodborne illnesses, they said, typically come from microscopic pathogens that are best detected through testing.

“More emphasis will be placed on preventing contamination rather than reacting to it afterwards,” said William James, the head veterinarian in the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service from 2008 to 2011, who helped develop the regulations.

“These [inspection] systems have evolved since the ’80s, and they will continue to do so,” he said. “We cannot do things the same ways we’ve always done them.”

However, USDA officials confirmed they have no plans under the new system to test for salmonella — for which the USDA once tested. The agency will rely heavily on pathogen testing by plant owners, but those results will not have to be publicly disclosed. The hog plants also will no longer be required to test for E. coli, records show.

Joseph Ferguson is a former USDA hog inspector who retired in 2015 after working 23 years under the traditional inspection system as well as with a trial program that created the proposed system. He said federal regulators lost control when plant workers supplanted them. Hog carcasses whizzed by him and the plant-paid inspectors at speeds so fast that fecal contamination — an important indicator for E. coli and salmonella — could not be detected.

“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.”

The proposed hog-slaughter rule is based on a study that began 20 years ago, ultimately including five large plants. Efforts to expand the program have sputtered under past administrations, but Trump administration officials have told industry trade groups that they expect the proposed regulations to soon become final. They say 40 of the 612 hog plants will begin using the new system. Collectively, agriculture officials say, these plants will account for 90 percent of the pork produced in the United States.

Shrinking staff

An analysis by the USDA of 35 of the 40 plants estimated that the number of federal inspectors on slaughter lines would shrink from 365 to 218. That same analysis estimated that the new system will save $6 million annually and that large plants — by increasing their line speeds by more than 12 percent — will increase their profits annually by more than $2 million. The current cap on line speed is 1,106 hogs per hour, or 18 hogs per minute.

Food safety advocates say giving more control to plant owners is a step away from the overhauls that gave federal inspectors authority over food safety in slaughterhouses in the first place. In 1906, Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle” was published, describing the high rate of rotten and contaminated meat being processed in Chicago’s meatpacking industry.

Public outrage fueled the passage of a federal law that year requiring meat to be slaughtered under sanitary conditions and under the supervision of federal inspectors.

Although there have been huge advances in food safety in meatpacking plants, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about a half-million people become ill and 82 die each year from consuming pathogen-laced pork products. Hog plants produce about 11 million tons of pork products annually, and 75 percent of it is sold in the United States, according to industry statistics.

The proposed inspection program has faced harsh criticism by government auditors and investigators.

In May 2013, the USDA’s inspector general issued a report that found three of the five plants in the trial program had numerous health and safety violations. Safety records at those three plants were worse than those at hundreds of other U.S. hog plants that continued to operate under the traditional system, auditors found.

A separate September 2013 Government Accountability Office report determined that the five-plant trial program was too small to “provide reasonable assurance that any conclusions can apply more broadly to the universe of 608 hog plants in the United States.”

No independent government assessments of the program have been done since the 2013 inspector general and GAO reports.

USDA is issuing far fewer citations for animal welfare violations

Worker safety

When it comes to worker safety, the USDA said in its proposed regulations that the plants in the trial program — which use the faster line speeds — experienced a drop in worker injuries.

The National Employment Law Project, a nonprofit that advocates for worker safety, questioned those findings. Meat-slaughter and -processing jobs have high injury rates that occupational experts attribute to the fast, repetitive motions workers perform throughout an eight- to 10-hour shift.

Illness rates for people who work in the meatpacking business — including carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis — are 16 times as high as for workers in other industries, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The USDA did not make public the analysis or data from its Food Safety and Inspection Service. The National Employment Law Project obtained it through a public information request. Two Texas State University researchers who specialize in quantitative methods and statistics analyzed the data and concluded that “it is impossible for FSIS to draw any statistically valid conclusion about worker injury rate differences.”

The analysis by Texas researchers got the attention of Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the second-ranking Senate Democrat. Durbin recently sent a letter signed by 16 other Democrats to the USDA inspector general’s office, asking for an investigation. Especially egregious, Durbin said, is that it appears that the USDA intentionally kept the analysis out of public view until officials were forced to disclose it and only after the public comment period had passed for the proposed inspection system.

“Using flawed data, the USDA is rushing to approve a rule concerning slaughter rates on hog farms, and it could jeopardize worker safety for a job that already comes with considerable risks and dangers,” Durbin said in a statement to The Washington Post. “The safety of tens of thousands of workers in pork processing plants should be USDA’s priority, and right now it clearly isn’t.”

The FSIS responded that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, not FSIS, has the “statutory and regulatory authority to promote workplace safety and health.”