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How the Sausage Gets Made

Summer is right around the corner and with it comes barbeques full of hot dogs and pulled pork sandwiches. When enjoying these summer favorites, no one wants to be thinking about the possibility that the pork they are consuming may not have been properly tested for fecal matter or that the employees who processed the pork are now suffering from health problems. Yet, if the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is allowed to pass the New Swine Slaughter Inspection System (NSIS), these dark possibilities will become a sobering reality.

The Trump administration’s new proposed rule would cut back on the number of government inspectors at pork processing plants and lift limits on the speed at which processing lines are allowed to operate. The National Chicken Council  proposed a similar plan for poultry in 2017, but thanks to over 100,000 public comments, including those from Public Citizen, its members, and partner organizations, the USDA denied the petition. We’ve seen the power that the public can have, and once again we called on our members to speak out against this new system. More than 1,000 members used their voice to oppose this dangerous proposal.

The USDA has made many claims about how their proposed rule will be beneficial, but many of these claims do not tell the full story. Here is the breakdown for some of these alleged improvements, and the truth behind them.

  • Improve effectiveness of market hog slaughter inspection. While efficiency sounds good, it is really just a way of increasing profits for the pork industry. The proposal states that increasing speeds could increase the surplus of large establishments by $2.04 million and that moving USDA inspectors to offline jobs will reduce labor costs by $6.67 million annually. Increased efficiency is directly tied to increased profits and shows the true motivation behind this new rule.
  • Make better use of Agency resources. This better use entails shifting USDA resources from online to offline positions, meaning that more of the inspection process will be the responsibility of the plant employees. Less government regulation and oversight heightens the chance that the production process will result in public safety risks. The government should not be allowing the pork industry to police itself.
  • Remove unnecessary regulatory obstacles to innovation by revoking maximum line speeds and allowing establishments flexibility to reconfigure evisceration lines. The USDA characterizes speed limits on production lines as an obstacle to innovation. In reality, they ensure that there is time for proper inspection to occur and they protect employees from developing carpal tunnel syndrome or other debilitating disorders.

The meat industry is already extremely dangerous. According to a report by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, meatpacking workers suffer work-related injuries at twice the rate of other workers. As the report says, the dangers that are already present should be enough to make it clear to the USDA that increasing production line speeds will further put employees at risk. The approval of this rule would be a blatant way of putting profits before safety.

We can even look to the meat industry for proof that this proposed rule would increase dangers to employees. A North American Meat Institute fact sheet, intended to show the safety of line speeds at meat plants, cites the existence of maximum line speeds and the inspections done by USDA inspectors as sources of safety. These elements, however, would be either removed or reduced by the proposed rule. If these are the regulations that the meat industry relies on for safety, then it makes no sense to eliminate them.

Additionally, the proposed rule is largely based on the HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP), which involved applying new procedures and responsibilities to five market hog establishments. While these establishments would, in theory, serve as a test-run for the new proposal, in reality the Food Safety and Inspection Service did not adequately oversee the program, according to a report from the Office of the Inspector General. The lack of oversight for the first 15 years of the project throws into question any proof of efficacy that the USDA may claim to have on the basis of HIMP.

Ultimately, it is a matter of common sense to see that increasing line speeds and decreasing the amount of government inspectors will also increase the chances of improper inspection, food contamination, and workplace injuries. If the USDA saw that such measures were unfit to be applied at poultry plants, there is no reason why pork plants should be any different. We must continue to remind the USDA that consumer safety and worker safety need to be of higher priority than profits. Public Citizen has submitted a comment to the USDA urging them to withdraw the proposal. By making our voices heard, we can once again stop these harmful measures from being approved.