New regulations allow slaughterhouses to complete certain inspections in-house and increase production.

Credit: Diego Lezama/Getty Images

Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture finalized a rule that makes a significant number of regulatory changes at pork slaughterhouses. The agency says that the changes are long overdue, and will modernize an inspection system that hasn't been updated in more than five decades. But both consumer advocacy organizations and those who advocate for worker safety have expressed concern that the new system could lead to an increase in food contamination and make conditions more dangerous for slaughterhouse employees.

As reported by Reuters, the New Swine Slaughter Inspection System (NSIS) will allow companies like Tyson Foods and WH Group's Smithfield Foods to increase the number of pigs that they slaughter every hour.

Those changes will also allow those facilities to train their own employees to sort and remove pigs that have defects—including fecal matter, illnesses, and injuries—before being processed, a task that has previously been done by a federal inspector. The USDA will still inspect each animal both before and after slaughter.

"[The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service] will make inspection staff determinations on a case-by-case basis to ensure that 100 percent inspection and other critical public health activities are carried out," the USDA has previously stated. "Should the proposed rule become final, federal inspectors won't be performing quality assurance tasks. Instead, they would be able to focus on critically important activities." The agency has also said that the processing plants will be cited if the animals haven't been properly sorted before its own inspectors step in.

"This regulatory change allows us to ensure food safety while eliminating outdated rules and allowing for companies to innovate,” Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a statement.

The NSIS also removes the limit on line speed, the number of pigs that can be slaughtered each hour. Processing plants have previously been limited to 1,106 pigs per hour, although the USDA says the average is actually closer to 977 per hour. Regardless, the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH) says that forcing slaughterhouse workers to process more pigs even faster could cause an increase to an already overwhelming number of workplace injuries; the organization says that meatpacking workers are fifteen times more likely to suffer "occupational illness" than workers in other industries.

"Working in a slaughterhouse is a difficult, dangerous job,” Jessica Martinez, the co-executive director of the National COSH said. “Speeding up production lines will make these jobs even more difficult and more dangerous. Workers will be at a greater risk of getting sick, injured—or killed.”

Consumer advocacy organizations have expressed their own concerns about NSIS, and what effect it could have on food safety. In 1998, five pork processing plants participated in a 15-year long pilot program called the HACCP-based Inspection Model Project (HIMP), and those plants were allowed to use their own employees to perform the sorting and pre-inspection tasks that would be permissible under the NSIS. Food & Water Watch previously reviewed the food safety performance data from the five HIMP plants, and compared it to data from five "comparably sized" plants that still followed the traditional USDA inspection procedures. Of the regulatory violations that were filed during that time period, 73 percent of the carcass contamination violations and 61 percent of the equipment sanitation violations were found in the plants participating in HIMP.

"The implementation of the rule will result in the fox guarding the henhouse. With less government oversight over hog slaughter inspection, big meat companies will have the freedom to inspect themselves and push towards their goal of increasing line speeds," Food & Water Watch executive director Wenonah Hauter wrote earlier this week. "There's no doubt about it: faster line speeds + less inspection = more food contamination."

The nonprofit Consumer Federation of America is equally troubled by the new rule. "This final rule puts industry profits ahead of public health. Higher line speeds, fewer inspectors, and no microbiological pathogen performance standards are a recipe for a food safety disaster," Thomas Gremillion, the Consumer Federation of America's Director of Food Policy, said in a statement. "The stakes are simply too high to rush forward with a rule like this that introduces sweeping changes to the inspection system without reliable measures in place to assess their impact."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the North American Meat Institute, the trade association representing the meat and poultry packing industry, has expressed its support for the new regulations. "The New Swine Inspection System will allow plants who choose to participate an opportunity for food safety innovation, a benefit to consumers and our industry at large," Julie Anna Potts, the President and CEO of the Meat Institute, said. "Under both the new and existing systems, our members' highest priorities are to provide safe products to the public and to ensure the workforce on which they depend, is also safe.”

Food & Wine has reached out to the USDA for comment.