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American Veterinary Medical Association: FSIS Privatizing Some Pig Slaughter Duties

October 30, 2019

Note: this article, featuring the Food Integrity Campaign, was originally published here.

FSIS Privatizing Some Pig Slaughter Duties

Plant workers to sort animals, trim carcasses before federal inspection.

Starting in December, workers at swine slaughter plants will be taking over some food safety duties now performed by federal inspectors.

Department of Agriculture officials finalized plans to shift those safety duties and remove production line speed limits in plants that opt to participate in the new slaughter system, as well as increase requirements for all swine slaughter plants to prevent contamination and test for pathogens. Agency announcements describe those changes as a modernization of the swine slaughter system of the past 50 years and an opportunity to improve food safety and animal welfare. Fewer USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service employees will work on production lines, shifting agency work toward checking sanitation efforts and ensuring animals are handled well.

Opponents predict contamination will rise with higher line speeds and more privatization. FSIS documents indicate slaughter line speeds have been limited to about 1,100 hogs per hour. Companies participating in a pilot program for the new slaughter system have reached speeds of 1,300 per hour.

FSIS officials published the rules Oct. 1 in the Federal Register, and they take effect Dec. 2.

Under the new slaughter system, FSIS inspectors will see healthier animals and carcasses with fewer defects, improving inspection efficiency, the rule states. Slaughter plants will operate as quickly as their facilities allow—as long as they prevent contamination with feces and pathogens.

Workers at slaughter plants that adopt the new system will sort live animals and remove unfit ones before their pre-slaughter inspection by FSIS officials. After slaughter, workers also would trim carcasses to remove parts with visible defects.

Dr. Michelle L. Sprague, who represents the American Association of Swine Veterinarians on the AVMA Animal Welfare Committee and is a former AASV president, said in an email that she thinks the new swine inspection system will improve swine welfare because federal inspectors will spend more time where animals are handled and housed.

“As such, they will be monitoring the unloading of animals from trucks, movement of animals throughout the facility, and feed and water availability in pens even more closely than they do today,” she said. “Increased federal monitoring of procedures that affect live animals is inherently a good thing and can only further improve processes and practices that impact those live animals and their welfare.”

Dr. Sprague also expects no change in the disease risks to swine and no increase in food safety risk for people. Inspectors will focus their attention where their expertise is needed, and FSIS veterinarians will oversee the inspection process.

FSIS officials received about 83,000 comments on the 2018 proposal, most of them letters from organizations advocating for consumers, animals, labor unions, and workers. Their criticisms included allegations the agency provided inadequate discussion and assessment of the proposal, used old or unpublished data to assess the pilot program, and performed too little oversight to say pilot programs were successes.

The Food Integrity Campaign of the Government Accountability Project, which advocates for whistleblowers, characterizes the new slaughter system as a dangerous shift of USDA inspector duties to untrained private workers. According to the organization, FSIS inspectors who worked in pilot plants for the new inspection process said in affidavits that sorters miss visible defects and contamination on fast-moving carcasses and that those who spot too many problems are threatened by their bosses.

FSIS employees still will conduct final inspections of carcasses. FSIS information indicates removing some agency inspectors from production lines will give them more time to verify that plants comply with sanitation and hazard control plans and to check whether workers are handling animals in a humane manner, according to the published rules.

Dr. Sprague also said that, at plants participating in the new slaughter system, federal inspectors will train slaughter plant employees to ensure they can meet federal standards, and slaughter companies will need to document that training. FSIS inspectors also will inspect all animals presented for slaughter and all carcasses, as required by law.

FSIS officials maintain that agency inspectors still will be the only ones performing inspections. They define the screening and removal of unfit animals and carcass defects instead as sorting, rather than inspection.

Activities that will be performed by private workers will include collecting samples from carcasses for microbial testing, cutting open mandibular lymph nodes and palpating viscera to check for disease, and otherwise watching for signs of infectious diseases that need to be reported to inspectors, notably including African swine fever and foot-and-mouth disease.

The FSIS will let some plant operators waive the lymph node and viscera examinations if they submit data indicating those activities are unnecessary.

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