UPDATE: Oct. 30, 2020: A Tyson spokesperson said that the shift to its own employees is the result of a partnership between Tyson and the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection System that aims to use new technologies, like vision systems and machine learning, to modernize the inspection process. As Iowa State University's James Roth told Reuters, the technology would shift some inspectors' focus to other complex issues like animal welfare and food safety.
- In January, Tyson Foods will have its own employees replace more than 12 federal inspectors at its Kansas beef plant to oversee its "quality assurance and trimming tasks," Reuters reported.
- The change is a result of a waiver the company filed with the USDA in March 2019 to shift the company’s inspections of cattle to employees. While the governmental regulatory agency approved the inspection waiver for certain parts of the process, USDA inspectors will continue to oversee carcasses and parts for defects or disease.
- Health and safety at meatpacking plants is a discussion that has come to the forefront following waves of manufacturing shutdowns due to COVID-19, and it has amplified an already contentious environment for food safety oversight. Activists and meatpackers have been clashing in recent months over new rules that allow companies to conduct inspections through technology monitored by employees.
For the last several years, federal oversight at meat plants has been decreasing. In 2014, the USDA approved a mandate that "poultry facilities will be required to perform their own microbiological testing” and “sort their own product for quality defects before presenting it to FSIS inspectors." Then last year, pork producers were granted similar leeway in the inspection process to bring a larger proportion of the inspection process in-house.
Now beef producers are looking to lessen its federal oversight too, but this change in inspection protocol has been controversial. Reuters reported that activists are responding negatively to the authorization of Tyson employees taking on greater oversight, saying it was a move toward deregulation and "really problematic."
Despite pushback, the change is based on a 15-year federal pilot program at five pork plants across the country that was vetted by the USDA before the final ruling was made. Still, the number of foodborne illnesses has jumped in recent years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2018, millions of pounds of meat and poultry were recalled, and since December 2019, there have been at least 20 recalls involving meat products potentially contaminated by E. coli, salmonella, listeria or foreign matter.
For manufacturers though, this change represents an opportunity to potentially increase productivity. When the USDA authorized the Modernization of Swine Slaughter Inspection rule last year, not only was the number of government health and safety inspectors reduced by 40% through the use of an online inspection system, but the implementation of technology into the process facilitated the end to caps on processing line speeds. Bloomberg reported at the time that these changes allow for a 12.5% increase in annual production, which translates to a savings of $3.78 million.
But that move was heavily criticized. The United Food and Workers Commercial Union (UFWC) sued the USDA for the decision last year. The union filed another lawsuit against USDA this year for similar reasons as increasing production speed has come under additional scrutiny during the pandemic.
To modernize the inspection process, Tyson is looking to eventually implement cameras and computer imaging to evaluate carcasses for any defects. The company’s anticipated shift to non-human inspections echoes its greater push to implement robotic processing capabilities to complete jobs that may be physically demanding, highly repetitive or dangerous. While machines may be able to consistently identify carcasses that are defective, the interim step of hiring in-house employees to replace a dozen federally trained inspectors will be an investment for the meat company. Tyson is now hiring 15 people per shift to check carcasses and worked with Iowa State University to develop training materials, Reuters reported.
The waiver to make this change was originally approved in March, but the pandemic delayed the change. This new process is now set to start in early 2021, joining the other companies that have made similar changes at poultry and pork plants.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Tyson's intent with adding in its new technologies at its plants, which is to modernize the inspection process.