Federal inspectors make regular visits to the nation’s slaughterhouses where they do quality control, test for diseases, and look out for unsafe slaughter practices that might result in contaminated meat. But now, the process they use is set to change, and critics say it will give pork producers far too much power and leave consumers in danger.
The US Department of Agriculture moved forward this week with new regulations that will simplify oversight of slaughterhouses where pigs are killed and processed. The new regulations have been under consideration for a long time, but while under previous administrations they were repeatedly delayed for more research, under the current administration they’ve raced ahead.
Most Americans don’t pay attention to regulatory requirements at slaughterhouses — at least, until there’s a massive outbreak of foodborne illness as a consequence of inadequate safety procedures. Critics of the USDA’s new regulations argue that such an outbreak is nearly inevitable because, they say, the new process doesn’t allow for adequate food safety testing.
The way we raise and slaughter animals on factory farms makes for cheap meat, but also introduces serious public health, sustainability, and animal welfare problems. The cramped conditions on factory farms are perfect for breeding disease, and the mass use of antibiotics to manage that disease risk leads to antibiotic resistance. Pig factory farms produce huge amounts of biohazardous waste that is poorly contained in large hog waste lagoons, which overflow during serious storms.
All in all, it’s a mess, one that, ideally, regulators would be fighting to improve. We have to do better, and the new regulations for pork slaughter are a move in the wrong direction.
The new pig slaughter regulations and what they mean
Our current procedures for oversight of pig slaughter facilities are decades old and there’s no question that they need to be reconsidered. But critics worry that the new regulations in effect privatize many of the key duties of USDA inspectors and make the rest of their duties harder.
There are two big changes at the heart of the new regulations.
One is the increasing delegation of inspection responsibilities to local plant employees, who are not obligated to have undergone any particular training in food safety or regulatory compliance.
The other is an increase in “line speeds.” Faster line speeds mean that more pigs can be killed each minute, which increases capacity for the slaughterhouses but also makes some inspection tasks much harder to carry out. In September, the Trump administration approved faster line speeds for poultry. The administration is also looking into reforming the regulations for beef.
The new regulations have been tested for more than a decade in a pilot program to see how well they work. Along the way, they’ve attracted a lot of detractors.
Former USDA hog inspector Joseph Ferguson has been one of the more vocal critics of the proposed change in procedures. Ferguson retired in 2015; he worked on both the traditional inspection system and on a trial program for the new system. He told the Washington Post this spring that the trial program had been a failure. “All the power gets handed over to the plant,” Ferguson said. “I saw the alleged inspections that were performed by plant workers; they weren’t inspections. They were supposed to meet or exceed USDA standards — I never saw that happen.”
An undercover investigation by animal rights group Compassion Over Killing infiltrated one facility that was participating in the pilot program to test the new regulations. The video they released showed obvious safety concerns, such as pigs with gaping wounds and dripping pus being sent down the slaughter line, as well as pigs covered in feces. Critics argue that with more inspectors and a slower line speed, these problems are much rarer.
And in a 2012 report, the USDA itself raised questions about whether the new system was working as intended. “The Food Safety and Inspection Service’s (FSIS) enforcement policies do not deter swine slaughter plants from becoming repeat violators of the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA),” the report found. “As a result, plants have repeatedly violated the same regulations with little or no consequence. We found that in 8 of the 30 plants we visited, inspectors did not always examine the internal organs of carcasses in accordance with FSIS inspection requirements, or did not take enforcement actions against plants that violated food safety regulations. As a result, there is reduced assurance of FSIS inspectors effectively identifying pork that should not enter the food supply.”
The FSIS contests these criticisms. It disagrees that under the new system power is handed over to the plant workers, arguing that safety inspections are still conducted wholly by federal inspectors.
And they point out that while the pilot may have produced critics and disturbing videos, it hasn’t produced diseased pork. “FSIS is moving inspection closer to an approach supported by current food safety science,” the agency said in a press release in response to critics this spring. “In fact, FSIS conducted a 20-year pilot called the HACCP-Based Inspection Model Project (HIMP) in five market hog establishments. The pilot has been ongoing throughout four presidential administrations producing the safest food supply in the world.”
But critics say that if corners are being cut and speed prioritized over safety, it’s only a matter of time until a health crisis occurs.
“Look at the FAA,” said former USDA chief veterinarian Pat Basu to the Washington Post, referring to how the agency that oversees aviation gave Boeing more oversight over airplane safety — which is widely believed to have led to problems when the 787-MAX malfunctioned. “It took a year or so before the crashes happened,” Basu said. “This could pass and everything could be okay for a while, until some disease is missed and we have an outbreak all over the country.” Basu left the USDA in 2018, about a week before the USDA sent the proposed regulations to the Federal Register.
“It is unacceptable to put public health, worker safety, and animal welfare at risk so that the pork industry can run faster lines and avoid government inspection,” Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter argued in a press release. “We urge the USDA to withdraw this rule and fulfill its duty to protect food safety.”
The rule has now finished its final review and has been sent back to the USDA for final publication in the Federal Register, where rules and proposed rules are published for the public.
Sign up for the Future Perfect newsletter. Twice a week, you’ll get a roundup of ideas and solutions for tackling our biggest challenges: improving public health, decreasing human and animal suffering, easing catastrophic risks, and — to put it simply — getting better at doing good.