Last month, the Office of the Inspector General, essentially USDA’s internal watchdog, released a scathing report of pork slaughterhouse inspections. What particularly concerns NCL is the report’s review of the pork slaughterhouse pilot program, which increased line speeds and reduced the number of inspectors.
The report raised a number of issues with the pilot program. First, the USDA failed to conduct a comprehensive review to gauge whether it has increased food safety and plant efficiency as intended. Despite limited oversight, the report still found major flaws with the inspections. With three of the plants receiving most noncompliance reports (formal write-ups of food safety violations), the program may increase the potential for food safety risks. This is not surprising considering these plants have faster production lines and fewer inspectors, limiting their ability to improve food safety and to comply with food safety regulations. Even more alarming, inspectors failed to manually inspect the internal organs in which disease and contamination may lurk.
A similar program has been piloted in poultry slaughterhouses and might be expanded to all poultry plants. This is a program that NCL, along with a robust coalition of food safety and workers’ rights groups, has been fighting against. As in swine slaughterhouses, the program would increase the speed of the poultry line and replace inspectors with plant workers, who would not be required to receive any new training. Workers would have only a third of a second to examine the chicken, meaning contamination and defects could go undetected. It is not only a food safety issue, but also a worker safety issue. Faster line speeds mean higher rates of repetitive-motion injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, for slaughterhouse employees. And many of these workers, who are often new, undocumented immigrants, women or non-native English speakers, may be hesitant to speak up for fear of being fired or, even worse, deported.
Given the findings in pork slaughterhouses, you may be wondering how USDA could even consider industry-wide implementation. Here at NCL, we are too. NCL’s conviction that implementing this program is a bad idea has now only deepened given the overwhelming evidence.