How the meat industry pressures federal regulators for less inspection, which compromises the safety of the food supply – Part 2
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How the meat industry pressures federal regulators for less inspection, which compromises the safety of the food supply – Part 3

Beef Side Being InspectedThis is the third article in a three-part series on meat inspection. Part 1 reports on tours I took of two beef facilities, a slaughterhouse and a meat processing plant. Part 2 includes interviews with those who favor and oppose new USDA inspection procedures and proposals that reduce the amount of inspection from federal meat inspectors. The articles were written when I was a consumer food columnist for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. The articles were rejected by newspaper editors and never published.

It was a huge surprise this spring when I read articles that the Trump administration was proposing rules for pig slaughter that would speed up production lines, giving less time to spot contamination, and permit pork processing plants to operate with fewer federal inspectors, putting more of the responsibility to ensure food safety on the companies themselves.

These were among proposals made under the Reagan administration in 1984 to cut costs that I wrote about.

Although the food safety system in the United States has improved since my articles were written, the meat industry has continued to press government regulators to reduce the government role in meat inspection.

In my two articles, I wrote about new “total quality control” programs, in which some of the meat inspection duties performed by inspectors were turned over to the companies. Total quality control programs have been replaced in every processing plant by a food safety program called Pathogen Reduction/Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points or PR/HACC.

Under this system, although government inspectors are present at every processing plant, meat producing plants are expected to self-regulate, according to the report “How Safe Is Our Food?” by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund. This system places the primary safety responsibility on the meat plants and slaughterhouses themselves, with government inspectors providing oversight.

Plants that violate critical food safety HACCP protocols face little consequence, according to the report.

For example, the report describes the Foster Farms poultry recall of 2013 to 2014:

In 2013, federal inspectors cited Foster Poultry Farms more than 480 times for failing to meet food safety standards at three plants in central California. Those plants were the source of drug-resistant Salmonella outbreak across 29 states and Puerto Rico that sickened 634 people and hospitalized 240. Even after Foster Farms had been cited more than 480 times in one year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service or FSIS for not complying with food safety standards, no shutdown of operations or significant fine occurred to help force changes.

Under self-regulation, Foster Farms identify Salmonella as a “hazard not reasonably likely to occur” in its HACCP plans, so effective controls weren’t put in place. The deficiency wasn’t identified until FSIS inspectors came into the plants in September 2013. The problem was only realized by FSIS after hundreds were already exposed to the bacteria.

The Foster Farms case reveals the danger of FSIS’s failure to list Salmonella as an adulterant. When a bacteria is declared an adulterant, no meat batches that test positive can be sold. While a high level of Salmonella contamination was found in poultry from Foster Farms, products could still legally be sold. There’s no regulatory requirement that raw poultry or ground beef should be free from this pathogen

Another continuing problem with meat inspection is that the meat industry continues to push for higher “line speeds,” which creates a greater chance for cross contamination or other hazards getting into the food supply. Worker injuries also increase when meat and poultry products go by faster.

Workers in meat and poultry processing plants have some of the highest rates of occupational injury and illness in the country, according to the Human Rights Watch article “As Line Speeds Increase, Meatpacking Workers Are in Ever More Danger.”

Between 2015 and 2018, a worker in the industry lost a body part or was sent to the hospital for in-patient treatment about every other day, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration or OSHA. Each year between 2013 and 2017, eight workers in the industry died, on average, because of an incident at their plant.

FSIS’s response on worker safety is that it’s up to the OSHA. However, that agency hasn’t had the resources to tackle the problem.

The USDA increased higher line speeds for the slaughtering pigs in September 2019 by eliminate line speed limits in pork processing plants.

In September of 2018, the USDA rejected a request from the National Chicken Council to allow poultry plants to operate their lines as fast as they want, as opposed to the current maximum of 140 birds per minute. However, the agency has approved the expansion of a pilot program in 20 chicken slaughterhouses, which are allowed to run lines as fast as 175 birds per minute, to include a “limited number” of additional plants to operate at the higher speed. 

USDA meat and poultry inspectors also face challenges due to understaffing. A nine-month investigation by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting found routine vacancies that leave the remaining federal food inspectors vulnerable to work overload, burnout, and other job hazards. Employees in other roles are often forced to abandon their own job duties to cover the slaughter line inspections that are mandated for plants to operate. 

When asked to respond to the investigation, FSIS officials said staffing for all positions is adequate and disputed that the public has seen any increase in risk due to other employees filling in for vacancies on the slaughter line, according to the Midwest Center. Officials did acknowledge their recent work to hire more meat inspectors, including a recent move to reclassify a number of positions to make them more attractive for entry level applicants.

From 2013 to 2018, the most hazardous meat and poultry recalls, Class 1, nearly doubled with an 83 percent increase, while overall all recalls of meat and poultry by the FSIS increased by 67 percent. Beef recalls were up 55 percent, pork up 67, and poultry recalls are up the most at 70 percent from 2013 to 2018.  

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that one in six people in the United States get foodborne illness with 128,000 individuals hospitalized and 3,000 dying every year.

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