The driving force behind this change is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s goal of reducing the number of government inspectors in hog slaughter plants and the pork industry’s goal of increasing their line speeds. According to national advocacy organization Food & Water Watch, this plan would put worker safety, humane slaughter compliance and food safety performance at risk.
“It is irresponsible for the USDA to expand a radical change to food safety responsibility in the pork industry based on a pilot program that clearly failed to show that allowing companies to inspect themselves can produce safe food,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch.
This move follows the controversial decision by the USDA several years ago to privatize inspection in poultry slaughter plants. The poultry industry is currently lobbying to increase line speeds under this new inspection system. Food & Water Watch sued the USDA in 2017 under the Freedom of Information Act for failure to disclose the names of the plants participating in this privatized inspection system.
This latest proposed rule would expand a pilot program in five hog slaughter plants that gives responsibility for food safety tasks to company employees instead of USDA inspectors. A 2013 USDA Inspector General audit found that after 15 years of the pilot program’s existence, USDA could not determine whether the goals of the program were met because of inadequate oversight.
Specifically, the audit said:
“Since FSIS did not provide adequate oversight, HIMP plants may have a higher potential for food safety risks. Nationwide, 3 of the 10 plants cited with the most NRs [noncompliance records] continue to participate in the HIMP program… “In fact, the swine plant with the most NRs during this timeframe was a HIMP plant—with nearly 50 percent more NRs than the plant with the next highest number.”
In 2017, the USDA allowed a sixth hog slaughter plant, the Clemens plant in Coldwater, MI, to operate as if it were in the privatized inspection pilot program. The pilot has been confined to five plants since 1999, yet the agency decided to grant an inspection waiver to this plant. Food & Water Watch filed a Freedom of Information Act request regarding this new HIMP plant on October 24, 2017, but the agency has yet to respond with the information requested.
In addition, the USDA has recently changed its performance standards for rates of microbial contamination in pork, including eliminating salmonella testing in slaughter plants, which essentially makes it impossible for the agency to establish a baseline for acceptable performance for plants under traditional inspection or this proposed new system.
“It is unacceptable to put public health, worker safety and animal welfare at risk so that the pork industry can run faster lines and inspect itself,” said Hauter. “We urge the USDA to withdraw this proposed rule.”