Risking food safety, USDA plans to let slaughterhouses self-police

More than a century ago, Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” exposed unsafe and unsanitary conditions in our nation’s slaughterhouses. Sinclair singled out breakneck line speeds as a key source of misery, noting, “The main thing the men wanted was to put a stop to the habit of speeding up, they were trying their best to force a lessening of the pace, for there were some, they said, who could not keep up with it, whom it was killing.”

Sinclair’s stomach-churning account led Congress to create a new agency in charge of food safety in slaughterhouses. Among the reforms implemented were rules to slow down line speeds so that government inspectors could ensure that diseased or feces-covered meat and poultry did not end up on consumers’ plates. Now, if the Trump administration gets its way, pork slaughterhouses will be allowed to drastically increase their line speeds, with potentially disastrous results for workers and consumers.

A new rule, finalized today, would reduce the number of government food safety inspectors in pork plants by 40 percent and remove most of the remaining inspectors from production lines. In their place, a smaller number of company employees — who are not required to receive any training — would conduct the “sorting” tasks that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) previously referred to as “inspection.” The rule would also allow companies to design their own microbiological testing programs to measure food safety rather than requiring companies to meet the same standard.  

ADVERTISEMENT

Equally alarming, the new rule would remove all line speed limits in the plants, allowing companies to speed up their lines with abandon. With fewer government inspectors on the slaughter lines, there would be fewer trained workers watching out for consumer safety. Faster line speeds would make it harder for the limited number of remaining meat inspectors and plant workers to do their jobs.

The experience from a long-running pilot project that involved five large hog slaughterhouses offers some insight into the possible impact of such radical deregulation. Consumer groups reviewed the government’s data from the five pilot plants and other plants of comparable size. They found that the plants with fewer inspectors and faster lines had more regulatory violations than others.

Indeed, the pilot project gave no indication that allowing companies to police themselves produces safe food. Nevertheless, the USDA concluded that self-policing would ensure food safety based on a technical risk assessment that — in violation of Office of Management and Budget guidelines — was not peer-reviewed before the USDA published its rule. Later, three of the five peer reviewers indicated that the study was fundamentally flawed. The USDA has pressed forward with its rule regardless, dismissing this criticism as mere technicality.

It’s not only consumers of meat who would pay a price for this misguided and dangerous new rule. There are more than 90,000 pork slaughterhouse workers whose health and limbs are already at risk under the current line speed limit of 1,106 hogs per hour. Pork slaughterhouse workers will tell you that they can barely keep up with current line speeds. They work in noisy, slippery workplaces with large knives, hooks and bandsaws, making tens of thousands of forceful repetitive motions on each and every shift to cut and break down the hogs.

The USDA is ignoring three decades of studies indicating that faster line speeds and the forceful nature of the work in meatpacking plants are the root causes of a staggeringly high rate of work-related injuries and illnesses.

ADVERTISEMENT

The dangerous nature of working in pork slaughterhouses has contributed to many plants experiencing a turnover rate of 100 percent annually. The title of an in-depth report on working conditions in slaughterhouses, just released by Human Rights Watch, says it all: “When we are dead and buried our bones will keep hurting.”

The USDA cannot issue regulations that undermine long-standing laws such as the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. Perhaps for that reason, the USDA has gone to great lengths to hide from the public the dangers inherent in this rule.

In the proposed rule, the administration claimed to have conducted an analysis of worker welfare that found, contrary to the scientific literature, that workers are safer in plants with faster line speeds. But it never published the analysis or allowed the public to see it and comment on it for the record during its rulemaking. When the analysis finally came to light through an open records request, its glaring flaws were manifest.

The USDA’s Office of Inspector General has opened an investigation into the use of faulty data, the lack of transparency and other irregularities of this rule. But the administration is plowing ahead at the behest of big packinghouse companies.

It’s no surprise that the public is opposed to this. Not only were there close to 80,000 comments from the public sent to the USDA opposing this rule, but a survey found an overwhelming majority of Americans — in all parts of the country and across party lines — were opposed to this controversial rule.

ADVERTISEMENT

Fortunately, Congress can still have a say on whether the USDA’s radical overhaul of pork inspection is allowed to go forward. An amendment put forward in the House of Representatives would ensure that no funds are used to implement this rule until all of the investigations into the USDA’s handling of the rule are completed. The Senate has yet to agree to the measure, but it should. The USDA should not be allowed to play politics with the safety of the American food supply and workers’ lives. 

Thomas Gremillion is the director of food policy at Consumer Federation of America.

Deborah Berkowitz is the Safety and Health Program director at the National Employment Law Project. She is the former chief of staff and senior policy advisor at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.