As the world focuses on the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration has been busy behind the scenes, doubling down on Big Ag deregulations.
It’s pushing changes to inspections on slaughter lines that threaten food and worker safety. At the same time, pulled safeguards means that these workers remain on the frontlines of the pandemic — without frontline employee protections.
The USDA Plays Fast and Loose With Meat Inspection Lines During the Pandemic
USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is deregulating inspections in some of the largest pork processing facilities in the country. It’s allowing plants to reduce the number of inspectors working on the slaughter line, giving critical inspection tasks to untrained company employees, and removing caps on how fast the line can run.
This new way of running slaughter lines is called the New Swine Inspection System (NSIS). The agency anticipates that 40 hog slaughter facilities, processing 92% of U.S. pork, will convert to NSIS. Some of the biggest names in pork processing are pushing for this, including JBS, Tyson, and Smithfield.
In one plant experimenting with NSIS, inspectors have just 2.6 seconds to assess a hog on the line. As a consequence, they’ve greenlit hog carcasses contaminated with feces, hair, toenails, and bile. These same carcasses go on to become bacon, pork chops, hot dogs, sausage, and other pork products.
Three lawsuits to challenge NSIS have been filed by unions representing the plant workers, animal welfare groups, and food safety advocates, including Food & Water Watch and the Center for Food Safety.
FSIS hid critical information from the public when it first proposed the frighteningly minimal system. Food & Water Watch was forced to file separate litigation to obtain crucial, undisclosed information. The revealed data showed NSIS would lead to more contaminated pork entering the market. Moreover, it could lead to diseases that ravage hog herds and/or could be transmitted to humans.
Plants that wanted to convert to NSIS had until March 30, 2020 to state their intentions. FSIS still refuses to disclose the names of those plants, leaving consumers in the dark.
Tell Congress to stop allowing USDA food safety waivers.
Meat Companies Are Being Given Almost Full Control Over Their Own Inspection Standards
Meanwhile, in poultry plants, FSIS is struggling to maintain the needed inspection staff. At the same time, it has stepped up its approvals of regulatory waivers to chicken slaughter plants. These waivers allow plants to increase their maximum line speeds from 140 birds per minute to 175 birds per minute.
In the first two weeks of April, FSIS approved 11 waivers for plants operated by Foster Farms, Tyson Foods, and Wayne Farms. These plants have all converted to the so-called New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS), which works much in the same ways as the NSIS for hog facilities.
Under traditional inspection, each FSIS inspector inspects 35 birds per minute. Under NPIS, just one FSIS inspector works at the end of the slaughter line. With a line speed waiver on top of that, this sole FSIS inspector must examine three birds every second — or 175 birds per minute.
FSIS carries out the process to grant waivers in secret. It doesn’t open the details to public scrutiny until after it has already granted the waiver. The Trump USDA has so far approved 28 new waivers under this process, mostly to the poultry industry’s big players.
Inviting everyone to the new game, FSIS is recruiting cattle slaughter plants to deregulate inspection, too. In March, FSIS approved a waiver for a Tyson beef plant in Kansas that slaughters up to 6,000 cows each day.
FSIS has not revealed how fast the line will run with this waiver or how many fewer government inspectors will be on the line. But whatever the exact details, we know waivers like this won’t result in safety for workers or consumers.
Meat Inspection Deregulation Threatens Food Safety
All of these deregulatory moves are designed to increase production, not improve food safety. They will contribute to expanding the industrial agriculture model by promoting the growth of factory farms. And it’s even more disconcerting that this is happening in the middle of a national crisis.
As the Trump administration has stepped on the accelerator to deregulate, the country has seen the consequences of the COVID-19 virus on meat and poultry plants.
While the news has focused on urban areas racked by the pandemic, hot spots have also emerged in rural communities in Colorado, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Iowa, South Dakota, and Nebraska. In these communities, meatpacking plant workers have contracted the virus while being forced to work. This has in turn forced some plants to curtail or cease operations temporarily.
Meatpackers have insisted on continuing with business-as-usual even amidst high employee COVID rates, pitting public health officials against company officials and even USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue.
Plants have also failed to provide adequate personal protective equipment to workers and government inspectors. Moreover, it’s virtually impossible to practice social distancing in these plants. Workers and inspectors work elbow-to-elbow in slaughter and processing facilities.
When workers protested these conditions, Vice President Mike Pence had the audacity to urge the workers to continue “to show up and do [their] jobs.”
Urge Officials to Take Action Against Increased Line Speeds
Increased line speeds only create more opportunities for contamination and sickness. It’s unnecessary and it’s putting our health at risk.
Tell Congress to stop allowing USDA food safety waivers. This is no time to gamble with our health.
We need to protect workers and stop USDA waivers.