USDA publishes rule to end limits on swine inspection line speeds
The Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service today published a rule in the Federal Register that ends government limits on the speeds through which swine go through inspection lines.
The rule will also make other changes that USDA said will improve the inspection process and save taxpayers money, but consumer advocates and some Democrats have said it will endanger slaughterhouse workers and diminish food safety.
The rule states, “FSIS is establishing an optional new inspection system for market hog slaughter establishments, NSIS, informed by the agency’s experiences under its Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP)-Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP). FSIS is establishing NSIS to improve the effectiveness of market hog slaughter inspection; make better use of the agency’s resources; and remove unnecessary regulatory obstacles to industry innovation by revoking maximum line speeds and allowing establishments flexibility to reconfigure evisceration lines. NSIS may also facilitate pathogen reduction in pork products and improve compliance with the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA).”
“This regulatory change allows us to ensure food safety while eliminating outdated rules and allowing for companies to innovate,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in an announcement. “The final rule is the culmination of a science-based and data-driven rule-making process which builds on the food safety improvements made in 1997, when USDA introduced a system of preventive controls for industry. With this rule, FSIS will finally begin full implementation of that program in swine establishments.”
USDA said the final rule has new requirements for microbial testing that apply to all swine slaughterhouses to demonstrate that they are controlling for pathogens throughout the slaughter system. In the final rule, FSIS amends the regulations to require all swine slaughter establishments to develop written sanitary dressing plans and implement microbial sampling to monitor process control for enteric pathogens that can cause foodborne illness. The final rule also allows market hog establishments to choose if they will operate under NSIS or continue to operate under traditional inspection.
FSIS will continue to conduct 100% inspection of animals before slaughter and 100% carcass-by-carcass inspection, as mandated by Congress, USDA noted.
The House version of the fiscal year 2020 Agriculture appropriations bill contains a provision that would not allow FSIS to proceed with the rule until a USDA inspector general’s review is complete, but the bill has not become law.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., a member of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, said, “With today’s announcement, the Trump administration has prioritized corporate, multinational meat processors’ interests over those of the American people and their families. Make no mistake: This is all about corporate profit, not food safety concerns. Under the guise of ‘modernizing’ hog slaughter inspections, the Trump administration will replace government inspectors with industry employees and allow for unlimited line speeds.”
The National Pork Producers Council said the new inspection system reflects “a 21st-century 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,” said NPPC President David Herring, a producer from Lillington, N.C. “The U.S. pork production system is the envy of the world because we continuously adopt new practices and technologies while enhancing safety, quality and consistency. This new inspection system codifies the advancements we have made into law, reflecting a 21st-century industry.”
NPPC noted that the new system has been piloted at five pork processing plants, was developed over many years of research and evaluation and recently received the endorsement of the National Association of Federal Veterinarians.
The North American Meat Institute today said the rule “allows for further food safety innovation while continuing to ensure consumers have access to safe, wholesome pork.”
“Although we have not reviewed the final rule in detail, FSIS has created this system by relying on science and years of experience that will continue to ensure the consumer is getting safe and wholesome pork,” said NAMI President and CEO Julie Anna Potts. “The New Swine Inspection System will allow plants who choose to participate an opportunity for food safety innovation, a benefit to consumers and our industry at large. Under both the new and existing systems, our members’ highest priorities are to provide safe products to the public and to ensure the workforce on which they depend is also safe.”
Consumer Federation of America Food Policy Director Thomas Gremillion said, “This final rule puts industry profits ahead of public health. Higher line speeds, fewer inspectors, and no microbiological pathogen performance standards are a recipe for a food safety disaster. USDA’s principle evidence that the rule will not increase foodborne illness is a risk assessment that has been thoroughly discredited. Contaminated pork sickens hundreds of thousands of people each year in the United States, and causes over 10% of illnesses from salmonella. The stakes are simply too high to rush forward with a rule like this that introduces sweeping changes to the inspection system without reliable measures in place to assess their impact.
“When USDA proposed this rule, CFA opposed it because the agency did not show that it would improve food safety,” he continued. “The rule would expand a pilot program that USDA has carried out for over a decade. The evidence from the pilot does not indicate that it helped to significantly reduce fecal contamination, salmonella levels, or otherwise improve food safety.
“Still, USDA claimed that expanding the pilot would improve food safety on the basis of a risk assessment, which employs statistical modeling to try to predict the effects of shifting inspector duties. That risk assessment should have undergone peer review before USDA proposed its rule, according to Office of Management and Budget guidelines issued under the George W. Bush administration. It did not. Instead, the peer review took place after the comment period closed on the proposed rule, and three of five reviewers concluded that the assessment was irredeemably flawed,” Gremillion said. “Nevertheless, USDA concluded that none of the peer reviewers’ comments required changes to the proposed rule.
“Unfortunately, that was not the only procedural irregularity in this rule. USDA claimed that higher line speeds would not affect workers on the basis of data that it refused to disclose. When advocates finally got their hands on the data that USDA cited, it turned out that it did not support that conjecture at all. At Congress’ request, the USDA Office of Inspector General is investigating whether agency officials acted inappropriately. For USDA to go ahead and finalize this rule with that investigation ongoing shows that politics, rather than science, is what’s driving this process,” Gremillion concluded. “Now it will be up to Congress to prevent this dangerous privatization scheme from going forward.”
Center for Science in the Public Interest Deputy Director of Regulatory Affairs Sarah Sorscher said, “Not only does the rule transfer work once performed by USDA inspectors to private slaughterhouse employees and allow slaughter lines to run at speeds, the agency is also pressing forward without a commitment to issue new federal testing standards for monitoring salmonella or other pathogens in meat.”
–The Hagstrom Report