The Agriculture Department is attempting to make the most dramatic changes to federal meat-inspection policy since Congress passed a 1906 landmark law that seized control of food safety from plant owners and made it the province of federal inspectors. (Ben Brewer/Reuters)

A proposal to dramatically change Department of Agriculture pork inspections, shifting some tasks from federal inspectors to plant employees, could be delayed until the agency’s inspector general completes an investigation into data used when the agency developed the new program.

A proposed rule the USDA published in February to change hog plant inspections would reduce the number of federal inspectors on slaughter lines by 40 percent in plants that chose to adopt the new inspection system. The proposal also places no restrictions on line speeds.

At least 17 congressional Democrats have objected to the proposed rule. During a hearing Tuesday, Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee ordered the investigation by the USDA’s inspector general. The order was made in an amendment to the 2020 budget for the Agriculture Department and was passed on a voice vote. The appropriations bill, which was approved 29 to 21, will move to the House floor for a vote. It must also clear the Senate.

The proposed rule “transfers vital inspection duties currently performed by USDA inspectors to company employees. That would be company-based inspections,” said Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, (D-Conn.), who introduced the amendment. “I believe it would endanger food safety, worker safety and animal welfare.”

The proposed hog slaughter rule was expected to be finalized this summer. An investigation by the inspector general could delay the proposal by months and, depending on the findings, could lead to changes or a withdrawal of the proposal, experts said.

The amendment calls for an investigation into all data used by the USDA to develop the proposal, including worker-safety data that was not publicly disclosed until after the closure of the public review and comment period for the proposed rule. It also said no federal funds should be used for the new system unless any problems identified by the inspector general were first addressed.

The North American Meat Institute, an industry group that supports the proposal, said, “This rule is founded on years of sound scientific data and experience. NAMI supports risk-based, science-driven food safety systems. Consumers deserve no less.”

The director of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), Carmen Rottenberg, said the amendment was prompted by media accounts.

“The comments made by Rep. DeLauro highlight the need for unbiased media reporting,” Rottenberg said in a statement. “When facts and data are not relied upon, when reporters cherry pick information to feed a salacious headline, and when lobbyists are writing talking points for media publications and Members of Congress, the credibility of the public rulemaking process is undermined.”

The Washington Post has published two previous articles about the proposal, most recently on May 24.

In response to Tuesday’s vote, the National Pork Producers Council said it “continues to support the proposed new pork inspection system, one that has been tested and scrutinized for years, as it is designed to increase efficiency and effectiveness of the federal inspection process and to provide more flexibility for adopting new food-safety technologies.”

The proposed rule is based on a study that began 20 years ago, ultimately including five large test plants. Efforts to expand the program have sputtered under past administrations, but Trump administration officials have said for months that they expect the system to be in place soon. The agency said that 40 of the 612 hog plants want to use the proposed system; those seeking to opt in would collectively account for 90 percent of the pork consumed in the United States.

The proposal calls for shifting to plant workers many tasks once performed exclusively by USDA inspectors, including removing unfit and potentially diseased live hogs before they enter the slaughterhouse. Plant workers would also remove internal organs from hog carcasses to look for signs of disease and would have the power to remove contaminated hog carcasses from the slaughter line — tasks performed by USDA inspectors in traditional plants.

A USDA analysis estimated that the new system would save the agency $6 million annually through staff reductions and that large plants — by increasing their line speeds by more than 12 percent — would increase their profit annually by more than $2 million. The current cap on line speed is 1,106 hogs per hour, or 18 hogs per minute.

At the end of the slaughter line are plant workers who process the pork, cutting it into chops and hams. This work causes a variety of repetitive-stress injuries, made worse by the speed at which the tasks must be performed, said Debbie Berkowitz, a worker-safety expert with the National Employment Law Project.

Berkowitz and her group, a nonprofit that advocates for worker safety, filed a Freedom of Information Act request to secure the worker safety data that the USDA used in the proposed rule, since the department said plant employees’ safety would not be compromised. That did not square with other data, Berkowitz said.

After the USDA released the data, two Texas State University researchers who specialize in quantitative methods and statistics analyzed it 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 who first asked for the inspector general investigation in April. Durbin sent the inspector general a letter co-signed by DeLauro and 15 other Democrats. 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 did so only after the public comment period for the proposed inspection system had expired.

The USDA has said that it is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, not the USDA, that has the “statutory and regulatory authority to promote workplace safety and health.”