Let’s just be clear about this. The new pork inspection model is not about modernization; it’s about privatization. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety, Alfred Almanza, seems to have a lot to say about modernizing the USDA’s inspection system lately. From what I’ve read, it appears that Mr. Almanza intends to expand a high-speed inspection model used in poultry into pork. He’s been touting the high-speed inspection system as “modern” and as yielding greater workplace efficiency, even stating publicly (more than once) that it “improves public health outcomes.” But what he isn’t saying is that this efficiency comes at a price – a price paid by workers, animals, and the environment. And that there are public health concerns associated with this new inspection model that have not been addressed.
What Mr. Almanza considers a modern solution is a gift to the industry that increases the volume of pigs to be slaughtered while at the same time reduces federal inspection. It doesn’t sound like a good idea to me, and I’m not the only one who sees it that way.
Hundreds of thousands of consumers, numerous NGO’s, and even members of Congress have spoken up in opposition to expanding the new inspection model into the pork industry (including urging Hormel, which has three pilot pork plants, to abandon the program). These varied groups question the high-speed model’s efficacy, but despite all the skepticism, the USDA continues to venerate the pork inspection program. Why? Because the program is a boon to the pork industry, to which the agency is increasingly beholden.
They’re giving up the keys to the castle. That’s what USDA Meat Inspectors who work in plants currently piloting the high-speed pork program are saying. In these pilot plants, highly trained federal meat inspectors are having their duties taken away from them and handed over to untrained plant workers. The accelerated speeds (at 1300 hogs per hour) make it difficult for inspectors to get a good look at carcasses, and consumers are suffering for it. Inspectors question the quality of the meat getting to grocery store shelves, and they report that they are often powerless to stop it. One inspector told GAP’s Food Integrity Campaign that the processing lines “are running so fast it is impossible to see anything on the carcass.” In fact, some inspectors won’t even eat the food that comes out of the plants that are piloting high-speed pork inspection.
So much for modern – high-speed inspection is barbaric. The drive for profit often hinders humane judgment, and plant management routinely drives workers and animals hard. A recent undercover video showing animal welfare issues at a high-speed plant makes it clear how important federal inspection is. When inspectors were out of sight, animals suffered. Beyond the oversight, the sheer volume of pigs in these plants is a recipe for workplace disaster. Breakneck line speeds and repetitive motion result in crippling worker injuries.
If the USDA wants to put a “modern” twist on its old ways, it should try something new and different – like listening to its own inspectors. Meat inspector whistleblowers have a long list of concerns about what happens when the industry is allowed to police itself, and the public is paying attention. Letting the industry inspect itself and allowing these serious threats to food integrity are far from what the modern-day consumer demands. Indeed, our government needs to catch up with the times.
Amanda Hitt is Director of the Food Integrity Campaign, a program of the Government Accountability Project (GAP) – the nation’s leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.