Judge Advances Suit Over USDA Plan to Let Pig Slaughterhouses Inspect Themselves

A federal judge will allow environmental groups to challenge the USDA’s voluntary swine inspection system, which may eliminate federal inspection of plants producing 93% of the U.S. pork supply.

(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — A federal judge gave the green light on Thursday to a lawsuit challenging new slaughterhouse rules that favor hog inspections performed by plant employees instead of federal inspectors.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture rolled out a New Swine Inspection System (NSIS) in 2019, couching it as an effort to modernize pork inspections throughout the country by establishing a “voluntary inspection system” for slaughterhouses while speeding up the slaughter lines for more efficient processing.

Environmental advocacy groups Food & Water Watch and the Center for Food Safety claim the government’s move to turn hog inspection over to private companies will lead to adulterated and unwholesome pork products ending up in grocery stores and restaurants throughout the country.

“When the government says ‘this is to modernize,’ what it really means is privatize. It reduces the number of federal inspectors that will be inspecting pigs before and after slaughter and replacing them with untrained plant employees,” said attorney Ryan Talbott with the Center for Food Safety in a phone interview Thursday. “So that, plus the increase in line speeds that will be allowed all goes to an increased threat of contaminated meat entering the market.”

The groups say the new system violates the Federal Meat Inspection Act, which places meat inspection duties in the hands of federal inspectors who must tag and separate animals that show signs of disease to ensure they don’t enter the food supply.

“It’s the federal government’s responsibility to do this,” Talbott said. “So the rule is not consistent with the statute.”

Talbott noted the new rules do not require plants to train their employees to perform thorough inspections, and the increased line speeds will undoubtedly allow some contaminated carcasses to slip through.

In the lawsuit filed last month, the Center for Food Safety cites data showing that plants tagged 25% to 30% fewer animals under the new system than plants using the traditional inspection process.

By the government’s estimate, NSIS plants slaughter 78% of the nation’s pork and in the next five years, plants producing 93% of the slaughtered swine in the U.S. are expected to adopt the new system.

The environmental groups say faster line speeds and permissive training standards could also result in more injuries on the job.

“You’re reducing transparency in this industry by taking out the federal inspectors and turning the activities over to the industries itself,” Talbott said.

“This industry is already one of the most dangerous in the country, and there’s no requirement for them to be trained. You’re just leaving it up to each individual plant on its own,” Talbott said. “So you’ll have various levels of training and maybe none at all, so having untrained plant employees on the lines with increased speeds that’s going to almost certainly increase injuries.”

In his Thursday ruling, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White found the threat of tainted pork on American dinner tables enough to give the groups standing to bring their case.

“Plaintiffs allege that the new NSIS procedures outlined in the Final Rule erode several important features of the traditional inspection process increasing the likelihood that adulterated pork products will enter the food supply and thus putting their members at risk of illness from consuming adulterated pork,” White wrote. “Accordingly, accepting plaintiffs’ allegations as true, the court concludes there is a credible threat that plaintiffs’ members face an increased risk of illness from consuming adulterated pork products because of the Final Rule, sufficiently establishing standing based on potential future harm.”

The USDA did not return a request for comment. 

White has scheduled a meeting with the parties in April.

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