Lawmakers and State Attorneys General Weigh in on Preserving Federal Meat Inspection

Consumer and food organizations are challenging dangerous hog ‘self-inspection’ rules


Food System

Several attorneys general, members of U.S. Congress, and the meat inspectors’ union filed amici curiae or “friend of the court” briefs in a key food safety case, a move that signals the growing importance of strengthening food inspection systems. 

The Congressional brief was spearheaded by U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and U.S. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, and written by the non-profit law firm Public Justice. Representatives Dina Titus (D-Nev.), Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), and Jesús G. “Chuy” García (D-Ill.) also signed on to the brief.

The states’ brief was spearheaded by Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh and signed by the Attorneys General for Illinois, Massachusetts, and Michigan.

The case – Center for Food Safety, et al. v. Thomas Vilsack, No.4:20-cv-00256-JSW (N.D. Cal) – concerns the implementation of the USDA’s New Swine Inspection System (NSIS), a Trump administration rule that greatly undermines the ability of federal inspectors to protect consumers from foodborne illnesses.

National food-policy and consumer organizations – including the Center for Food Safety, Food & Water Watch and the Humane Farming Association – have argued that those rules violate the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA), one of our country’s cornerstone food safety laws.

The NSIS program relies in large part on meat company employees conducting inspections instead of government inspectors, part of a decades-old industry push for ‘self-regulation’ and a radical departure from long-established practice. This raises significant dangers to public health; an examination of USDA data showed that the plants that had piloted the new system had significantly more regulatory violations for fecal and digestive matter on carcasses than traditional plants.

​​The Congressional brief argues that USDA “promulgated rules related to meat inspection that run contrary to the congressional intent and purpose of enacting the Federal Meat Inspection Act (‘FMIA’),” and that the NSIS rules “are not only inconsistent with the ways Congress directed the FMIA be implemented, but also with the statute’s overarching goal of ensuring consumer confidence in a safe meat supply.”

The Attorneys General brief argues that the new rules “delegate[] many inspection duties to private plant employees, who must meet only minimal training requirements, effectively sidelining federal inspectors and placing the public at a greater risk of consuming suspect products.”

The American Federation of Government Employees, who represent the federal food safety inspectors employed by USDA, argued that the new rules improperly delegated inspection tasks to private companies.  They also “effectively prevent[] … inspectors from performing the required post-mortem examination of all carcasses, and parts thereof, by allowing establishment employees to trim carcasses prior to the required inspection.”

“The Trump administration implemented this outrageous self-policing initiative that hands over inspection duties to meat companies themselves, putting millions of Americans at risk from getting sick due to foodborne illness,” said Zach Corrigan, Senior Attorney for Food & Water Watch and lead counsel in the case. “We welcome the support of lawmakers and state officials who realize this case is about stopping a fundamentally unsafe food policy.”

“We are gratified to see our elected officials, state, and union allies step up to help us restore safety to our animal food system,” said Amy van Saun, Senior Attorney for Center for Food Safety. “This overwhelming support confirms how important public health and safe meat are to so many in this country.”

“This partnership between federal meat inspectors and the plaintiffs in this case is a natural,” said Bradley Miller, national director of the Humane Farming Association. “We’re also gratified to have several legislators and attorneys general standing with us. Clearly, USDA bureaucrats should not be relying upon the industry’s own employees to conduct federal meat inspection.  Food safety and humane slaughter laws should be vigorously enforced by federal inspectors for the sake of both animal welfare and public health.”