USDA’s Radical Changes to Slaughterhouse Food Safety Inspections Endanger Consumers and Workers

In response to the U.S. Department of Agriculture publishing a final rule today that allows the nation’s pork plants to run pig slaughter lines without any limits on line speed, and reduces the number of government food safety inspectors on the line reviewing carcasses and meat for signs of disease, Debbie Berkowitz, director of the worker safety and health program at the National Employment Law Project, gave the following statement:

“The U.S. Department of Agriculture, ignoring an ongoing investigation by its own Office of Inspector General, is pushing through radical changes to our nation’s slaughterhouse food safety inspection system, and needlessly jeopardizing the safety of both consumers and workers.

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“The USDA’s new rule, published today, will not make our food safer but will lead to an increase in serious and often debilitating injuries to tens of thousands of slaughterhouse workers, who already endure exceedingly harsh conditions to provide cheap pork to American consumers.

“The Trump administration calls this modernization, but it’s really a giant step backward to the days of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. The new rule would remove 40 percent of government food safety inspectors from the pig slaughter plants, turning their tasks over to plant operators with no required training, and allow plants to aggressively increase their already breakneck line speeds to process more hogs per hour—and increase profits.

“This is a break with past practice at the USDA, where in 2014, the new poultry inspection system did not allow any increase in line speeds, as it recognized the serious adverse consequences to workers and acknowledged the lack of data to assure that consumers would be protected at faster line speeds.

“By removing all limits on pig slaughter line speeds in an already dangerous industry, the Trump administration is rigging the rules against our nation’s packinghouse workers and sacrificing their health to benefit narrow corporate interests.

“It is stunning that this rule was issued despite the USDA Office of Inspector General’s open investigation into the agency’s rulemaking actions. The USDA is thumbing its nose at its own inspector general, who opened an investigation into the agency’s downplaying of worker safety risks by using a faulty analysis that officials then hid from the public. Equally shocking, this rule directly contradicts the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the law of the land since 1970, which requires employers to provide safe conditions.

“Workers in the meatpacking industry already face staggeringly high workplace injury rates—more than double the average for all other private industries. And they face serious workplace illness rates that are an alarming 15 times higher than the average for all other industries.

Thirty years of studies are clear: Speeding up pig slaughter line speeds will increase lacerations, crippling repetitive motion injuries, and other serious injuries to workers. The only beneficiaries to this rule are a handful of slaughterhouse owners—companies such as Brazilian-owned JBS and Tyson Foods—that already make millions in profits yet report among the highest number of severe injuries.

Further, consumer groups reviewed data from five plants that piloted this new inspection system and found that the plants with fewer inspectors and faster lines had more regulatory violations than others.  In fact, the pilot project failed to show that allowing companies to police themselves produces safe food. And to add insult to injury, the USDA released this rule as a proposal with an incomplete risk assessment of the rule’s impact on consumer health—it failed to peer review the analysis.

“Americans are opposed to this rule. The USDA received more than 83,000 comments from the public during the 90-day comment period, and fully 87 percent were opposed to this rule. A recent public opinion survey found that an overwhelming majority of Americans, in all parts of the country and across party lines, opposed the USDA’s proposal.

“Conditions in these plants are already so tough that companies face extraordinarily high turnover as workers leave because they are in pain or injured. This rule will allow companies to injure more workers with impunity.”

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The National Employment Law Project is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts research and advocates on issues affecting low-wage and unemployed workers. For more about NELP, visit www.nelp.org. Follow NELP on Twitter at @NelpNews.

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