April 7, 2019 Liz Borkowski, MPH 0Comment

A proposed new inspection system for pork facilities will shift the responsibility for identifying diseased and contaminated carcasses away from USDA inspectors toward pork plant employees, Kimberly Kindy reports in the Washington Post. The Trump administration first proposed such a rule in February 2018, and received 83,561 comments about it. Perhaps they’ve revised the rule in response to commenters’ criticisms, but this administration does not have a great track record in that regard.

Kindy notes that USDA only sent its proposed rule to the Federal Register after the former chief veterinarian of the agency’s Food Safety and Inspection service left. Pat Basu held that role from 2016 to 2018 and, Kindy reports, “refused to sign off on the new pork system because of concerns about safety for consumers and livestock.”

In addition to reducing the role of USDA inspectors, the proposed rule included a provision “revoking maximum line speeds and authorizing establishments to determine their own line speeds based on their ability to maintain process control for preventing fecal contamination and meeting microbial performance measures during the slaughter operation.” Allowing plants to speed up their processing lines raises concerns not only about employees’ ability to identify problems when hog carcasses are whizzing past, but about worker health and safety. As Celeste Monforton noted when USDA announced this proposal, “The animal slaughtering industry already has the highest incidence rate of occupational illnesses than any other U.S. industry (SNR12). Those numbers include carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis and other musculoskeletal injuries.”

And, Deborah Berkowitz of the National Employment Law Project pointed out, “There is no requirement that plant employees (who will be doing the tasks previously done by trained government inspections) under NSIS be trained in inspection activities that USDA inspectors normally performed. Not being able to identify and contain animal diseases could devastate the domestic livestock industry.”

This kind of delegation of government responsibilities to industry has come under fire in the wake of two fatal 737 Max jet crashes, Kindy notes. In an investigation of the factors behind the crashes of those two Boeing planes, Dominic Gates reports in the Seattle Times that “Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) managers pushed the agency’s safety engineers to delegate safety assessments to Boeing itself, and to speedily approve the resulting analysis.”

Foodborne illness and crippling injuries might not be quite as dramatic as a plane crash, but they can also devastate people’s lives. We created agencies like USDA to protect public health; turning their responsibilities over to industries, whose incentives favor cost-cutting, erodes the protections that we all rely on.

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