USDA proposes ‘modernizing’ swine inspections

New rules will affect worker and consumer health. Here's your primer.

Most Americans shop for pork knowing little about how the meat was produced and processed, looking just at the price tag stuck to an anonymous hunk of shrink-wrapped meat. While some of us seek out attributes like “pastured,” “humanely raised,” or “organic,” claims that may reveal something about how an animal lived, few think about the mechanics of slaughter itself. And fewer still think about “the chain.”  

The chain is what workers call the mechanized assembly line that snakes through large-scale slaughterhouses, suspended from the ceiling and dangling with steel hooks. It carries livestock through the entire modern-day meatpacking process, from slaughter and scalding to evisceration and deboning, as they are transformed—usually by knife-wielding human workers—from live animals into carcasses and ultimately component parts. These lines tend to run briskly. In pork production, current regulations cap a line at 1,106 head per hour—which means 18 swine whisking by every minute, or one pig in less than four seconds.

The question is whether that’s too fast, or not fast enough. On Friday, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a proposal to “modernize” swine inspection by revoking maximum line speeds, allowing facilities to run more quickly with more automated testing and less human oversight. Whether that’s a great thing or a dangerous idea depends on who you ask—but it’s becoming a trend in meat processing more generally. Last September, for example, the National Chicken Council petitioned USDA to waive line speed caps entirely and replace human inspectors with faster, more automated quality control methods. The agency’s plan is a push in that same direction, allowing pork plants to invest in new technology that would mean fewer human checks, more offline spot testing, and faster overall speeds.

Though line speeds are currently capped by federal law, they’re also limited by the inspectors who check carcasses for “defects”—the industry’s term for visual blemishes that can signal foodborne illness. As pigs make their way down the line, inspectors from the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) test for diseases by visually inspecting internal organs, watching for bile and fecal matter spilling from infected organs, and even doing some of their own dirty work by incising lymph nodes. The proposed rule announced on Friday—the New Swine Slaughter Inspection System (NSIS), based on learnings from a 15-year pilot program—aims to eliminate red tape by moving much of the inspection process off the line.

Currently, FSIS inspectors visually check every single animal—at least in theory. The proposed rule would change that, allowing plant employees to conduct quality checks before the carcasses reach federal inspectors on the line. The idea is that this will result in fewer issues, which will make life easier for inspectors and result in better food safety outcomes.

Critics argue that food safety oversight is lax enough already in meatpacking, and decreased outside accountability will only make matters worse.
The National Pork Producers Council and the North American Meat Institute, two of the country’s biggest producer associations who stand to benefit from the proposed rule, quickly registered their support for the changes.

Critics, on the other hand, say the proposed rule amounts to a shift towards self-policing, reducing the number of federal inspectors on the line and outsourcing their work to meatpackers themselves. Advocacy organizations critical of this approach allege that it puts plant workers, not government officials, in the position of slowing the line to identify and address quality issues—something they can be reluctant to do in environments where the emphasis is on non-stop production. In their view, food safety oversight is lax enough already in meatpacking, and decreased outside accountability will only make matters worse.

“When I first started working for FSIS an older inspector told me regarding my job duties, ‘It’s not whether or not people are going to eat shit,’” one inspector told Food Integrity Campaign, a whistleblower organization. “‘They are. It’s just how much.’” Shit happens, basically, and the fear is that the proposed changes would allow it to happen more often.  

But former FSIS veterinarian William James, who helped design the new program, says he welcomes the rule because the current online responsibility for catching visible defects doesn’t do much for preventing foodborne illness, anyway.

“What we know is, the principal causes of [foodborne illnesses] are bacteria, which we cannot see,” James says. “But we spent the majority of our time on the line looking for lumps, bumps and bruises—things that will not make people sick. In other words, most inspectors are spending most of their time as quality control for the plant.” That means making the product more commercially acceptable.

Right now, plants that slaughter around 1,025 hogs per hour require seven inspectors on the line. NSIS would halve that

It’s important to note that public safety isn’t the only issue. Critics say that new rules allowing for faster line speeds may be dangerous for workers, too, increasing the potential for on-the-job injuries. According to an investigation from Harvest Public Media, the demanding pace of pork industry lines can be linked to repetitive stress injuries and musculoskeletal disorders, among other issues.

But Benjamin England, a former FDA regulator and current industry consultant, says that’s just a necessary cost of modernization.

“People who complain about that should talk to OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration],” he says. “Because that ain’t FSIS jurisdiction.” In other words, FSIS’s domain is food safety, not worker safety.

And maybe that would be a good thing: The agency is strained, and there just aren’t enough inspectors around to enforce their standards to begin with. Right now, plants that slaughter around 1,025 hogs per hour require seven inspectors on the line. Under the proposed rule, there would be three or fewer required, and another two conducting overall safety and compliance work off the line.

“This needs to be done, so FSIS can devote more of that billion-dollar budget to food safety activities, rather than quality control activities.”
FSIS’s proposed budget is $1.25 billion for 2018, down $20 million from the previous year. James argues that food safety inspections need to be maximized with consideration for those long-standing financial and human resource limitations. Federal food inspection has been underfunded for years, as regulators are asked to attend to a growing list of responsibilities while provided with shrinking financial resources. According to a 2017 report from the Office of the Inspector General, federal food inspectors failed to catch 20 percent of serious food safety infractions in food manufacturing facilities. Proponents say the new rule is better equipped to deal with the short-staffed reality of food safety enforcement.

“This needs to be done, so FSIS can devote more of that billion-dollar budget to food safety activities, rather than quality control activities, which is a function that the plant should appropriately conduct,” says James, the former FSIS veterinarian. “We can spend more of that money on doing laboratory tests for pathogenic bacteria or for toxic residues.”

Another element of NSIS introduced last week will require across-the-board compliance (and more paperwork). Under the plan, all plants, and not just those opting into the NSIS, will be required to develop new plans, subject to approval, to ensure the prevention of foodborne illness through sampling. For every thousand carcasses processed, plants will be required to take two samples themselves, and test for diseases like E.coli or salmonella.

England argues that the increased compliance won’t effectively reduce foodborne illness.

“One of the things they’re trying to do is they’re trying to mitigate the current pathogenic bacteria incidences in pork and therefore, illnesses related to pork consumption,” England says. “Most of the illness are actually a result of cross-contamination at the locations of the retail or the user, consumer-level.”

Whether that’s true or not, the “user” (translation: all of us) has a little time to weigh in on the proposed changes. You can read the text of the rule here and you have 60 days to comment.

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Sam Bloch is a contributing writer for The Counter, where he covers business, environment and culture. He has also written for The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Places Journal, Art in America and other publications, and is currently working on his first book, a work of narrative nonfiction about shade, for Random House.

Jessica Fu is a staff writer for The Counter. She previously worked for The Stranger, Seattle's alt-weekly newspaper. Her reporting has won awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Newswomen’s Club of New York.