The USDA Dismantled Health and Safety Protections at Pork Manufacturing Plants

Published Dec 4, 2019

Update July 2, 2020: The USDA’s Office of Inspector General has concluded that flawed and questionable data practices were utilized to support a proposed rule that would undercut public health protections at pork processing plants. For the data on worker safety, the USDA failed to ensure that the data was accurate, failed to fully disclose the data’s limitations and sources, and failed to provide an analysis of the data to the public during the open comment period. Together, these practices made it impossible for outside experts to properly evaluate the agency’s conclusions.

What happened: The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) failed to use the best available science when finalizing a new pork inspection rule, which used potentially flawed data to justify a decrease in food quality and safety protections at pork manufacturing centers. The rule failed to follow current guidelines for scientific peer review and public comment which will result in pork factories being able to self-police aspects of their food safety inspection. In addition, limits on pork production line speeds were eliminated, seemingly without consideration for the body of scientific evidence that suggests increased line speeds endanger the safety of workers.

Why it matters: The new USDA rule known as the New Swine Inspection System (NSIS) was finalized based on evidence provided by a pilot program; however, the pilot program on which the new rule is based did not undergo proper monitoring, data collection and data analysis. Instead, a misleading risk assessment was made available to the public before the initial 60-day comment period. By finalizing the NSIS, the administration has ignored crucial aspects of the scientific and regulatory process – proper peer review and public comment – and subsequently put the health of our food system, factory workers, and everyday Americans at risk.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) failed to provide adequate oversite, ignored the proper peer review process, and potentially concealed data related to the Hazards Analysis Critical Control Point Inspection Models (HIMP) pilot program. They pushed forward with finalization of the New Swine Inspection System (NSIS) despite a lack of evidence to show it guarantees worker and food safety.

The NSIS rule was officially proposed on February 1, 2018 and is informed by a 1997 program which piloted the new regulations at five pork processing facilities. The proposed rule incorporated an assessment by the USDA on the HIMP pilot program to determine if there were impacts on worker safety and food quality. When the assessment was incorporated into the NSIS rule, it failed to fulfill the regulations that govern how scientific information can be incorporated into a new rule. Specifically, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs requires peer-review to occur before publication of a proposed rule and a public comment period after publication, but the USDA did not follow this procedure. Because the USDA did not allow the public to comment on the rule with all the necessary information, the rule was introduced and finalized based on potentially flawed data and without adequate insight from experts and the public.

Comments on the rule made by members of the public, subject matter experts, and members of congress, show a strong opposition for the rule. Most comments (87%) made during the public comment period were opposed to the rule. Among those in opposition were 6,500 members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) International, an organization that recently filed a federal suit against the USDA challenging the rule. As meat packing workers already experience rates of carpal tunnel and tendinitis at a rate 16 times greater than the average for all other industries, the unions are concerned about the effect increased line speeds will have on the health and safety of workers. In addition, during the eventual peer review process, three out of five reviewers provided comments on the flawed nature of the risk assessment. Nevertheless, the USDA decided these comments did not prompt any changes to the risk assessment or proposed rule.

In sum, the USDA fulfilled all the requirements of rule-making – publishing the proposed rule, providing a public comment period, and soliciting external review – but did so in a way that led to concealment of data on the safety and effectiveness of the HIMP pilot program. Then, input gathered from the public and subject-matter experts was effectively ignored to allow the rule to be finalized.

The USDA’s own office of Inspector General (IG) has shown concern over disregard for the scientific process when finalizing the NSIS. The USDA IG has opened an investigation into the rule over concerns it “concealed information and used flawed data to develop and promote [the] new inspection system”. Previous reporting on the HIMP program from the USDA in 2013 also suggests that the pilot data was flawed and that the USDA failed to provide adequate oversight. Specifically, the USDA failed to quantify any improvements achieved at HIMP facilities; did not consistently enforce policies at all facilities; and failed to establish formal agreement with facilities participating in the pilot project. The same report revealed the NSIS was failing to meet the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) standards, but the administration has failed to incorporate this evidence into the new rule. More recent data analysis revealed that HIMP facilities were more often cited for quality and safety violation than non-HIMP facilities. The findings led the researchers to state it was “impossible” for USDA to come to “statistically valid conclusions about worker injury rate differences.”

Regardless of the various ways the Trump administration has sidelined science in the proposal and finalization of this rule, the New Swine Inspection system is set to take effect on December 2, 2019. After this date, significantly fewer USDA’s FSIS inspectors will be working at pork facilities to ensure the quality of our food. Facilities will also be allowed to alter and reduce the frequency of testing for foodborne pathogens, further endangering the safety of the pork products. Furthermore, the current line speed limit of 1,106 hogs per hour (18 hogs per minute) will be eliminated allowing facilities to ramp up production speeds, disregarding the health of their workers and safety of their products. It is predicted that the largest facilities, which produce close to 90% of US pork products, are the ones most likely to switch.

The rule has been described as a “modernization” of the industry, but public health and occupational health experts believe the new rule could lead to more workplace injury and a greater risk of contaminated products finding their way on to store shelves. By concealing information, using flawed data, and sidelining the proper peer review process, the USDA has created a rule that allows the pork industry to self-regulate and puts the health and safety of factory workers and everyday Americans at risk.