- Phyllis Fong, inspector general for the USDA, informed 16 members of Congress last week her office is investigating whether the department hid information and used flawed data to support allowing pork industry employees to take over certain inspection duties from federal employees, according to The Washington Post.
- The Post reported the investigation was requested by Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and other Democrats after researchers from Texas State University analyzed department data and determined it wasn't possible "to draw any statistically valid conclusions" about the effect on worker injuries from the proposed inspection system. As detailed in a proposed rule issued in February 2018, the changes would allow plant workers to increase the speed of processing lines at pork slaughter plants, and some critics worry more worker injuries could be a result.
- Following The Post's coverage of the proposed rule, the department's Food Safety and Inspection Service issued a press release criticizing the newspaper for its "poor attempt" to explain the plan and its "decision to continue to parrot arguments that are devoid of factual and scientific evidence ... ."
Depending on the results, the investigation could end up delaying or even derailing implementation of the USDA's proposed rule, which was expected to be finalized this summer, according to The Post. The new regulations — including more employee-led inspections and faster processing lines — have been in the works for more than a year and emerged after a 15-year federal pilot program instituted at five plants across the country.
The proposal's impact on worker injury rates has been an ongoing point of contention, with the USDA's proposed rule stating a preliminary analysis showed mean injury rates between 2002 and 2010 were lower at pilot program plants using the new inspection system than in traditional ones using slower line speeds.
The approximately 612 pork slaughter facilities in the U.S. are currently allowed a maximum of 1,106 hogs per hour on production lines, or 18 hogs per minute. The USDA proposal would allow plants to determine their own line speeds, which could increase profits, but might create other problems.
Worker injuries are one of several concerns raised about the proposal. 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 some duties from federal employees could result in more fecal and pathogen contamination.
However, the pork industry supports the proposal and says the rule changes will allow processing plants to take greater responsibility and free up federal inspectors for other duties such as checking for contamination and diseases instead of spending their time examining pork for quality issues.
"Under the proposed rule, plants don't have free rein to run as fast as they want," Jim Monroe of the National Pork Producers Council told NBC News last year. "They are still required to meet the letter of the law when it comes to animal welfare, food safety and employee safety."
USDA's FSIS maintains that modernized hog slaughter moves inspection practices away from the old "poke and sniff" methods of the past and toward an approach supported by current food safety science.
"There is no single technology or process to address the problem of foodborne illness, but when we focus our inspections on food safety-related tasks, we better protect American families," Carmen Rottenberg, FSIS administrator, said in a release.
Although it could take months for the investigation to be completed, this dispute is likely to linger, especially since the Trump administration is reportedly planning to expand similar inspection changes to beef processing facilities.
Meanwhile, per-capita pork consumption has been trending upward in the U.S., which is the top global producer. U.S. production is expected to rise 4% this year due to higher slaughter figures and heavier carcass weights, according to an April report from the USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service. Exports are projected to be 5% higher this year because of strong global demand, regardless of retaliatory tariffs from China and Mexico, the report said.