- USDA’s new system of allowing plant employees to conduct some inspections at pork processing plants is permissible under federal law, a California federal judge ruled last week. Consumer advocacy groups Center for Food Safety, Food & Water Watch and the Humane Farming Association filed a lawsuit against the USDA in 2020, arguing the new inspection system undermined public safety.
- The new system allows plant employees to make the first level of safety determinations about animals and carcasses before federal inspectors make a final determination. The court found this does not interfere with the federal inspectors’ duty to examine meat, and does not represent delegating this responsibility to plant employees.
- The new rule, which represented the first changes to the pork inspection process in half a century, was controversial when it was published in September 2019. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union also sued the USDA over the new rule, but that case focused on safety risks to line workers.
Depending on who’s talking about it, the new inspection rule either creates more efficiency and increases consumer safety, or puts the public at risk through a lack of attention to food safety standards.
In a written statement, the Center for Food Safety and its co-plaintiffs characterize the rule as the latter. Tarah Heinzen, legal director with Food & Water Watch, equates the ruling to “let[ting] the fox guard the henhouse.” Amy van Saun, senior attorney for Center for Food Safety, said they are exploring all legal options “and will keep fighting the corporate-controlled meat industry to protect public safety and a healthy food supply."
The National Pork Producers Council said in a written statement they are pleased by the decision, which incentivizes investments in new technology and keeps the pork supply safe.
“Pork producers use science-based approaches to continuously improve and modernize their practices to ensure product quality and consistency and their workforce’s health and safety,” the statement says.
The rule in question came during the anti-regulation blitz of former President Donald Trump’s administration, but it had been in process for more than a decade. The USDA had proposed changes to the way slaughterhouses were run since the 1990s by looking for a way to increase safety and efficiency.
A pilot program allowed five operations to utilize a new system where plant employees could make some of the inspection decisions. A 2014 USDA report found that in terms of food safety risks, the new system was comparable to the one relying on only federal inspectors.
USDA published a final rule with changes to the way pork slaughterhouses run in 2019. It does not require pork processing plants to use the guidelines in the new rule, which could reduce the number of government inspectors needed by 40%.
The plaintiffs compiled statistics based on public records from 2013 through 2017 that showed there were more regulatory violations in the plants that had employees performing inspections. This data was not included in the federal government’s consideration of whether to implement the rule, but the court ruled comments asking the department to consider that type of information were considered as the rule was written.
This is the second lawsuit filed about the pork slaughter rule changes, which also allowed line speeds to be faster. A Minnesota federal court ruled against the faster line speeds.