Changes in the way pork processing plants operate and are inspected could be coming this spring, according to The Wall Street Journal. The proposed changes, which include faster processing lines and more employee-led inspections, stem from a 15-year federal pilot program instituted at five plants across the country and known as the HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project, or HIMP.
Critics of the proposed changes — U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Consumer Reports and Food & Water Watch among them — argue speeding up production lines means workers are more likely to be hurt and fewer problems will be caught. Critics also claim allowing plant workers instead of federal employees to do inspections could result in more food safety issues.
However, the pork industry says the rule changes allow packing plants to take greater responsibility, freeing up federal inspectors for other duties. "There is no rational basis for claims that wider adoption of HIMP will create new animal handling issues or jeopardize the safety of workers," said the National Pork Producers Council, in a statement.
The proposed regulatory changes were in the works prior to the Trump administration, according to the WSJ. The rules follow from the HIMP pilot projects conducted since 1999 at five pork processing plants, including one Hormel Foods facility and one owned by Smithfield Foods.
In a November 2014 evaluation of the program, USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service found that the five participating hog slaughterhouses were performing as well as non-participating ones. "On this basis, FSIS sees no reason to discontinue HIMP in market hog establishments," the agency concluded.
However, a 2013 audit of the program by the USDA's Office of Inspector General found that federal officials permitted hog slaughter plants to conduct business without enough inspectors and were consequently cited for more rule violations. The audit stated that FSIS was unable to determine whether the pilot program's goals were met since the agency did not adequately oversee the program.
Per-capita pork consumption has recently been trending upward again in the U.S., which is the top global producer. Exports are also up, with a deal announced last summer allowing U.S. fresh and frozen pork products to again ship to Argentina after facing an import ban in 1992 following animal health issues. Total pork exports last year climbed 7.5% over 2016, with another 5% bump expected this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported.
Sow numbers are up to their highest levels since 2006, according to Agriculture.com, raising concerns that the enhanced production will result in lower prices down the road. That's not an unfounded concern since USDA already noted lower processor margins last month due to competition from expanded processing capacity.
Hog slaughterhouses have been on the rise, with new packing plants going online last fall in Michigan and Iowa owned by Clemens Food Group and Seaboard Triumph Foods, respectively. Smithfield, the largest pork producer in the country, has invested $100 million in building a new distribution center and expanding cold storage at its Tar Heel, North Carolina, pork processing plant, said to be the largest such facility in the world.
It's unclear whether allowing hog slaughter facilities to voluntarily adopt new regulations will result in better oversight or more problems. If testing reveals more E. coli or other pathogens, and pork recalls start increasing as a result, the government may decide to pull back on the idea. One thing for sure is that the industry has some big incentives to not let that happen.
Meanwhile, chances are the USDA rule changes on market hog slaughter will be adopted, although the deadline to make comments is still more than two months away. FSIS extended the comment period on the proposed rule by one month in response to industry and consumer group requests. Comments can be submitted until May 2.