Meat/Poultry Inspection

USDA Rushes to Deregulate Hog Slaughter Inspection, Puts Food Safety at Risk

Final Rule Issued Amidst Inspector General Investigation into Whether Officials Inappropriately Withheld Information from the Public

Washington, D.C. The United States Department of Agriculture today issued a final rule to overhaul the pig slaughter inspection. The following is a statement of Consumer Federation of America’s Director of Food Policy, Thomas Gremillion:

“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. 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. 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.

USDA received close to 80,000 comments on this rule, yet the agency has neglected to make any significant changes in response. The final rule promises that USDA will ‘decide in 2019’ whether it will develop microbiological performance standards that it could use to actually measure the food safety impact of these radical changes. Similarly, the final rule still contains no training requirements for company ‘sorters’ that take over government inspection responsibilities.

The American public is not fooled. Our polling has showed widespread public opposition to this proposal. Now it will be up to Congress to prevent this dangerous privatization scheme from going forward.”