At a Smithfield hog plant in central Illinois, federal meat inspectors examine pig carcasses on the slaughter line, remove diseased and contaminated meat, and mark it “condemned.” They have the exclusive responsibility for performing this work.

At another hog plant about 75 miles away, JBS USA Food Co. employees are part of a long-running test program in which they perform tasks similar to those done by federal inspectors. When plant employees do this food safety work, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says they are “sorting” and “removing” or “disposing” of the meat, not inspecting or condemning it.

The shift in language is central to the USDA’s efforts 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.

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The proposed new inspection system transfers some responsibilities that traditionally have been handled by USDA inspectors to employees of pork plants. The USDA says it has studied the new inspection system for 20 years and that pork products from the test plants are at least as safe as those produced by traditional inspection. They say federal inspectors will spend less time visually assessing pork and more time ensuring sanitary conditions are maintained throughout the plant.

Several food safety lawyers, Democratic members of Congress and a former agriculture official say that the USDA is using sleight-of-hand tactics to get around legal mandates that have been in place for more than a century. Those mandates require federal regulators to inspect — and either pass or condemn — every live hog that arrives at a slaughterhouse and every hog carcass on the slaughter line.

“They are playing these linguistics games,” said Rena Steinzor, a food safety expert who teaches law at the University of Maryland. “What they are doing is illegal. If they have a problem with the statute because they think it’s a waste of energy for federal inspectors to eyeball every single animal, they could go to Congress. . . . The Constitution requires them to do that, not gut the law by regulation.”

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The test hog-inspection program is expected to expand this summer after the agency approves new rules. Certain pork plants would have the option of using the new inspection system. Thirty-five plants plan to join the five test plants in using the new program; they would produce 90 percent of the pork consumed in the United States.

The number of federal inspectors on hog slaughter lines at the plants new to the program will be reduced from 365 to 218, a 40 percent cut, according to a USDA analysis published in the Federal Register. The overall number of inspectors at those plants will drop from 400 to 288, a decline of 28 percent, according to figures provided by the USDA.

The new rules will allow slaughter-line speeds to run as fast as the plant desires. The current cap on line speed is 1,106 hogs per hour, or 18 per minute.

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Records show there have been no serious public health problems or pork food poisoning outbreaks linked to the test plants. Critics of the test plants say they have more food safety problems than the traditional plants; the USDA disputes that.

A half-dozen food safety groups, along with the USDA inspectors’ union, say they are concerned that increased line speeds and federal staff reductions on those lines will cause diseased and contaminated meat to slip by the remaining inspectors. They also cite an inherent conflict of interest among plant employees because they work for pork producers and not the public. Training for those workers, they point out, is also done entirely at the plant owners’ discretion.

Pat Basu, a former chief veterinarian for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) who retired in 2018, is critical of the proposed regulation. He says the agency is using semantic tricks as it reassigns duties to plant employees that the law says inspectors should perform.

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“These are word games they are playing,” Basu said. “What they are really doing is removing hogs that are diseased and contaminated. Why are these suddenly not inspections?”

USDA officials say that they are modernizing the inspection process and that the new system will not violate existing laws and regulations. They say the agency has the authority to change how federal inspections are performed so long as a carcass-by-carcass inspection is performed on all of the hogs presented by the plant as fit for human consumption.

“In the proposed rules, we are just giving the plant employees the opportunity to more fully execute their [food safety] plan before we make that final verification that the product is safe,” said Phil Bronstein, an assistant administrator with the FSIS.

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Bronstein acknowledged that under the proposed rules, the number of USDA inspectors on the slaughter line in most large plants will be reduced from seven to three. Bronstein said the remaining inspectors would be more experienced and have a higher level of training. Also, the number of USDA inspectors who will roam large plants to ensure sanitation procedures are in place and to check on animal welfare will grow from one to two, officials said.

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At least 17 members of Congress, all Democrats, have stated their opposition to the new system. “It is appalling to watch the Trump Administration and [USDA] leadership justify their gutting of hog slaughter inspections with meaningless technicalities and semantics,” Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), vice chair of the House Agriculture Appropriations Committee and chair of the Food Safety Caucus, said in a statement to The Washington Post.

“Who do they think they are fooling? This giveaway to corporate special interests means company-based employees will carry out responsibilities that are currently performed by government inspectors.”

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Defining inspection

In addition to the term “condemnation,” other transferred tasks have also been given different names under the proposed new program, records show.

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For example, when plant workers have examined a hog’s head and internal organs, looking for and removing signs of disease and contamination, they have “trimmed dressing defects and contamination, and identified pathology defects on the carcasses,” the proposed regulation says. They have not inspected the animal, the USDA says.

“The agency has trivialized what we have done and what we do by calling it sorting and other consumer protections,” said Charles “Stan” Painter, chairman of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, which represents inspectors. “The plant workers are clearly expected to do food safety inspections.” Painter said that given the increased role plant workers will have on slaughter lines, he believes federal inspectors are “now nothing more than window dressing at the end of the line.”

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The USDA has long used different terminology for the same tasks, depending on whether they were performed by federal inspectors or employees in the test plants. But it has become more steadfast in asserting the need for others to adopt its language, and the proposed new inspection system has focused attention on the matter.

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The proposed regulation emphasizes that plant employees’ primary jobs involve “non-food safety standards concerned primarily with diseases of no public health significance.”

However, records show that nearly every transferred task involves food safety issues. For example, when plant workers are removing defects, such as blemishes, from a carcass, they might also trim abscesses that could be a sign of a serious disease or trim spots with fecal contamination that may contain dangerous pathogens.

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When they remove internal organs and examine them, they are looking for signs of disease such as septicemia, which would mean the entire carcass could be filled with harmful bacteria.

“They are, in a sense, performing part of the inspection process, doing a pre-screening,” said Daniel Kovich, director of science and technology with the National Pork Producers Council. “Yes, they are looking at it, and they are supposed to move things from the line that are not supposed to pass inspection. But only FSIS can inspect an animal.”

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In an interview, USDA officials acknowledged that many of the tasks handled by plant workers would be related to food safety but said they are not inspections.

Although there is no cap on how fast line speeds may run, the USDA anticipates about a 12.5 percent increase at the large plants under the new system, records show.

Zach Corrigan, an attorney with the nonprofit advocacy group Food & Water Watch, said that means the fewer remaining inspectors would need to examine an average of 6.1 heads per minute versus about 2.7 heads per minute in the traditional system.

Corrigan said the new system places a heavy burden on the USDA inspectors who remain on the line and must inspect every carcass. He said the new system will sometimes make it impossible for the USDA to comply with the law.

“The definition of inspection is a ‘critical appraisal,’ ” said Corrigan, citing a 2000 court case that dealt with USDA inspections. “That legal threshold cannot be met when you remove inspectors from the lines and you increase the line speeds.” He called the USDA’s varying terms for the same food safety tasks “Orwellian doublespeak.”

The USDA said a 2002 legal ruling found that the hog test program did not violate the Federal Meat Inspection Act. However, that court decision was limited to the test program and said it “may not necessarily foreshadow the outcome of judicial review of such future regulations.”

The USDA says only a federal inspector or veterinarian has the power to place the department’s mark of inspection on the pork — under the traditional and the alternative new system.

The department also says the word “inspection” is a technical term and can be applied only to situations in which a USDA inspector or veterinarian has performed a food safety oversight task. At meat plants, veterinarians are typically the highest-ranking federal official.

In response to a recent Washington Post article that said the proposed rules would shift much of the power and responsibility for food safety inspections at hog plants to plant employees, the USDA wrote: “By law, only federal inspection personnel conduct inspections of animals, carcasses and parts — and USDA inspection personnel inspect every carcass and part before it leaves the slaughterhouse and processing plant.”

However, inside the test pork plants, USDA inspectors use the term “inspector” — as in “TS [trimming and sorting] inspector” — to refer to their plant employee counterparts. For example, in a 2013 citation for a food safety violation, a USDA inspector said a diseased hog had “passed all three of your TS inspectors” without them spotting the problem, and the carcass had to be condemned.

And in job advertisements, owners of the test pork plants consistently call some employees inspectors or use the word inspector in job descriptions. In a recent job posting by JBS, “quality control inspector” was used as a job title, and it said tasks include performing “various quality control functions including but not limited to line inspection, audits.” JBS did not respond to several requests for comment.

Spotting problems

Five USDA inspectors said in sworn affidavits, taken by the nonprofit Government Accountability Project, that plant workers routinely miss problems in the test plants that they believe are potential food hazards.

They also said plant workers aren’t in a position to stand up to plant supervisors when they do spot problems.

“On numerous occasions, I witnessed them fail to spot abscesses, lesions, fecal matter and other defects that would render an animal unsafe or unwholesome,” said one inspector, who was not named. “Furthermore, plant inspectors don’t actually want to shut off the line to deal with the problems they spot on the job. . . . Obviously their employer will terminate them if they do it too many times.”

Outside evaluations of the test plants have exposed problems. The most recent review was done in 2018 by Food & Water Watch. In its assessment, the group compared USDA inspection reports from the five test plants with those of five comparably sized traditional plants.

The group received copies of citations from 2013 to 2016 through a Freedom of Information Act request. In all, more than 3,500 citations were issued by USDA inspectors to the 10 plants. Food & Water Watch determined that 73 percent of citations issued for a carcass contaminated with feces, bile, hair or dirt were at the five test plants.

In the five test plants, 32 citations were issued after inspectors spotted carcasses that were “so infected that consumption of the meat may cause food poisoning.” Five comparably sized traditional hog plants received no citations for this offense, which is considered to be one of the most serious food safety violations because it can lead to possible recalls and food-poisoning outbreaks.

Carmen Rottenberg, who runs the FSIS, said the evaluation was not a meaningful comparison. She said citations to the test plants were higher because plant workers had assumed more responsibilities. When they fail to properly perform these new jobs, she said, the plants are then cited for those failures.

“We are holding the plants accountable for a lot more tasks,” Rottenberg said.

Inspection reports illustrate some of the problems USDA inspectors found with the work done by plant employees.

At one test pork plant in Michigan, employees assigned to remove sick and diseased live hogs overlooked one that had collapsed and died, then presented it to USDA inspectors as fit for slaughter.

At an Illinois test plant, its workers failed to identify more than a dozen abscesses in the internal organs of a slaughtered hog — a clear sign that the entire carcass was contaminated with dangerous bacteria.

And in Minnesota, employees at a test plant overlooked patches of yellow and green material on the chest wall and hindquarters of a hog carcass. It was fecal matter that could have contained dangerous pathogens.

The Food & Water Watch evaluation followed two independent government audits of the test program that were critical of the alternative inspection system. In 2013, the USDA’s inspector general found that three of the five test plants were among the worst in the nation for food safety and sanitary problems. Also in 2013, the Government Accountability Office raised food safety concerns due to the faster line speeds in those plants.

In the USDA’s self assessment the following year, the agency said its data showed the test plants “are performing as well as comparable large [traditional] market hog establishments and are meeting FSIS expectations.”

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (Ohio) and 16 other Democratic lawmakers opposed to the new inspection system asked the USDA inspector general’s office last month to investigate whether the department properly disclosed data on worker safety during the public review and comment period for the proposed regulations.

In a statement to The Post, Kaptur cited Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data that say 1 in 6 Americans get sick and 3,000 die because of foodborne diseases each year: “If we are to improve those numbers, we cannot hand over the integrity of inspections to an industry focused more on profit and less on human and animal welfare.”