Documents Show Industry Pushed to Relax Food Safety Measures During Pandemic

USDA Inspector General pandemic audit must investigate the extent to which agency ignored food safety requirements at the behest of meat and poultry industry

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Food System

For Immediate Release
 

WASHINGTON, DC – Newly revealed documents suggest there were serious problems with food safety inspections at meat and poultry plants during the onset of the COVID pandemic. 

In a letter to USDA Inspector General Phyllis Fong, Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter points to several alarming revelations that should be incorporated in the Inspector General’s recently announced audit of the agency’s COVID response.

The deviations from standard safety protocol appear to have come at the behest of the meat industry, which sought to keep production lines operating at the same or higher speeds without regard for the safety of workers or the health of consumers. 

The new documents, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the group Public Citizen, show a vigorous lobbying campaign by the meat and poultry industries. As alarming, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) appeared eager to comply with these industry demands due to the COVID-19 outbreak. In one exchange, the USDA acknowledges that in April 2020, poultry plants were allowed to opt into the agency’s 2014 self-inspection rules, also known as the “New Poultry Inspection System,” despite “imperfect compliance with regulatory standards.” 

The documents also show that the USDA was willing to provide — and may have even provided — plants with inadequately trained inspectors from other agencies. The industry also requested that USDA stop enforcing some of its own regulations pertaining to minimal spacing for inspectors and employees along slaughter lines, in part so that plants could erect barriers between employees. The agency appeared willing to allow this, without even considering whether the same ends could be achieved by simply having fewer employees and inspectors work in the plants, an approach that probably would have forced companies to slow production. 

The documents also reveal that USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) staff were told to suspend certain food safety assessments and evaluations — a decision that was not publicly disclosed at the time. This decision seemed to apply to plants regardless of their operating capacity. 

“These documents show us that corporate interests were using the pandemic as cover to push for policies that would harm the health and safety of workers and consumers alike. And even worse, the Trump administration appeared to be quite willing to give the industry what it wanted,” said Food & Water Watch Senior Attorney Zach Corrigan. “The USDA Inspector General needs to look closely at what favors were granted to the industry by the previous administration. The USDA under the new administration should make long-term policy changes that enhance food safety, not undermine it.”