- Some oversight of food safety inspections in pork plants will shift in May to the $20 billion pork industry, The Washington Post reported. The Trump administration plans to cut federal inspectors by approximately 40% and allow plant employees to take over.
- About 40 of the country's 612 pork plants will soon start operating under the new system, impacting 90% of the pork produced in the U.S., according to The Post. The new arrangement will share responsibility for identifying diseased and contaminated pork between federal inspectors and plant employees, with training of the latter at the discretion of owners of pork slaughtering facilities. Slaughter line speeds will have no limits.
- The National Pork Producers Council said in an issues paper distributed on Capitol Hill that the new arrangement will mean "a more symbiotic relationship" with employees of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety Inspection Service, The Post reported. USDA representatives told the newspaper they wouldn't publicly comment on new regulations until they were final.
The USDA's FSIS and the pork industry have advocated for these changes for some time, believing that shifting some food safety functions from federal inspectors to plant employees would free up inspectors to check for contamination and diseases instead of spending their time examining pork for quality issues.
The new regulations — including more employee-led inspections and faster processing lines — have been in the works for more than a year and emerge after a 15-year federal pilot program instituted at five plants across the country. Although the USDA Inspector General's office found three of the five had a number of health and safety violations, a later report from the Government Accountability Office found the pilot program too small to draw any reasonable conclusions, The Post reported.
The proposed changes have been controversial since critics — consumer groups, members of Congress, worker safety organizations and some former FSIS staffers — argue that allowing plant workers to take over inspections from federal employees could result in more contamination. They also say allowing faster production line speeds will mean more worker accidents and more problems eluding them.
"Turning food safety inspections over to hog farmers is one of the dumbest and most dangerous decisions the Trump administration has made — and that's a long list,” Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, said in a release. "Millions of Americans already fall sick each year from contaminated food even with government safety inspectors on the job. I shudder to think how many more will get sick or die if hog farm workers, not trained government veterinarians, are the last line of defense against a salmonella outbreak."
There are also questions about whether allowing plant owners to train employees as they see fit would create additional food safety risks and other problems. Without specific, mandatory training criteria, it's possible some plant owners would shirk this aspect and allow insufficiently trained workers to do inspections. With pork and other meat meat recalls up and consumers leery of food contamination, increased safety assurances make better sense.
Since March 2018, there have been at least 13 recalls of pork products, according to USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. Nearly all were due to foreign matter contamination, misbranding or undeclared allergens. Only one stemmed from possible pathogen contamination. However, The Post noted USDA will not be testing pork for salmonella, nor will hog plants have to test for E. coli, so it's not clear how potential problems will be caught under the new system or how consumer trust can be maintained.
What is clear are the financial advantages from this partial deregulation of pork inspection. The changes — including cutting the number of federal inspectors from 365 to 218 — are projected to save the industry $6 million each year, according to a USDA analysis quoted by The Post. Large plants upping their production line speeds in excess of 12% — the maximum is now 1,106 hogs per hour, or 18 hogs per minute — would see annual profits rise by more than $2 million. However, since one recall can cost $10 million, any gains could quickly be wiped out.
Per capita pork consumption has recently been trending upward in the U.S., which is the top global producer. Exports are also up, with a deal announced in 2017 allowing U.S. fresh and frozen pork products to again ship to Argentina after a 1992 import ban from animal health issues. Total pork exports in 2017 climbed 7.5% over the previous year, and another 5% bump was expected in 2018, according to the USDA.
With higher consumption rates and exports, it's likely more pork will be processed in the country's 612 slaughtering plants. Smithfield, the largest U.S. pork producer, invested $100 million in a new distribution center at its North Carolina pork processing plant, said to be the largest such facility in the world. More recently, Smithfield put $45 million into its South Dakota plant to meet growing demand for bacon and ground seasoned pork.
The Trump administration also plans to allow beef inspections to be assumed by plant owners, The Post reported, with USDA officials scheduled to discuss the changes with that industry next month. So the meat industry will be closely watching how these regulatory changes pan out for pork, and whether problems occur along the way.