Trump administration finalizes rule allowing fewer inspectors at pork plants

Pork plants will have their products looked over in less time by fewer inspectors under a rule finalized Tuesday by the Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The new rule reduces the number of inspectors required at pork plants and also removes a cap on the speed inspection lines can run, prompting concern from groups that the rule will hurt public health as well as worker safety.

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“This regulatory change allows us to ensure food safety while eliminating outdated rules and allowing for companies to innovate,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny PerdueGeorge (Sonny) Ervin PerduePlan to lift roadless rule in Alaska's Tongass national forest threatens economy House Democrat asks USDA to halt payouts to Brazilian meatpacker under federal probe From state agriculture departments to Congress: Our farmers need the USMCA MORE said in a release, calling it a modernization of a 50-year-old process.

But a decrease in inspectors could leave the responsibility to companies' staff to spot signs of disease and remove unsuitable products, leaving USDA inspection at the end of the line.

“The new rule would remove 40 percent of government food safety inspectors from the pig slaughter plants, turning their tasks over to plant operators with no required training, and allow plants to aggressively increase their already breakneck line speeds to process more hogs per hour — and increase profits,” said Debbie Berkowitz, director of the worker safety and health program at the National Employment Law Project and a former senior policy adviser for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under the Obama administration. 

“By removing all limits on pig slaughter line speeds in an already dangerous industry, the Trump administration is rigging the rules against our nation’s packinghouse workers and sacrificing their health to benefit narrow corporate interests.”

The USDA’s Office of the Inspector General has already opened a probe into whether the agency concealed information and used flawed data on worker safety when evaluating the new hog inspection system.

The United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents 30,000 pork plant workers nationwide, agreed with others that the changes will be dangerous for workers.

“Today’s USDA rule sends a clear message that this administration values corporate profits more than the safety of America’s food and workers. Increasing pork plant line speeds is a reckless corporate giveaway that would put thousands of workers in harm’s way as they are forced to meet impossible demands," the group said in a statement.

USDA said inspectors “will also retain the authority to stop or slow the line as necessary to ensure that food safety and inspection are achieved” but estimates that reductions in staff will save the agency $8.7 million.

The agency is considering a similar process for beef inspection.

“The implementation of the rule will result in the fox guarding the henhouse. With less government oversight over hog slaughter inspection, big meat companies will have the freedom to inspect themselves and push towards their goal of increasing line speeds. There’s no doubt about it: faster line speeds + less inspection = more food contamination,” Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food and Water Watch, wrote in a statement.

The new process has been in pilot testing since 1997 and was welcomed by the industry.

“We applaud the USDA for introducing a new inspection system that incentivizes investment in new technologies while ensuring a safe supply of wholesome American pork,” National Pork Producers Council President David Herring said in a statement.

Updated at 4:45 p.m.