You Say Industry Can Regulate Itself? Prove It
The Trump administration is eager to let businesses police their own behavior. There is reason to fear the consequences.
By The Editorial Board, The New York Times (NYT)
April 11, 2019
The editorial board represents the opinions of the board, its editor and the publisher. It is separate from the newsroom and the Op-Ed section.
In the slaughterhouses where pigs are reduced to their constituent parts, the disassembly lines carry about 1,100 pigs per hour — a new carcass every three seconds. For decades, the federal government has sought to prevent food-borne illnesses by stationing inspectors along the slaughter lines to eyeball the passing pigs for signs of disease and decay.
The Trump administration plans to overhaul this system, slashing the number of inspectors who work the lines and shifting some responsibility for food safety to the slaughterhouses.
The shift toward self-regulation of slaughterhouses is part of a broader trend. The Trump administration also has proposed letting oil companies assume greater responsibility for the safety of offshore drilling platforms, and it is considering letting employees of nuclear power plants conduct some safety inspections in the place of federal regulators.
The system of slaughterhouse regulation is out of date. The industry has succeeded over time in sharply reducing the kinds of problems visible from the slaughterhouse floor — the government says its health inspectors increasingly are policing aesthetic issues — but the incidence of some illnesses caused by pork consumption has stopped falling.
According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates, pork consumption causes more than 80 deaths a year and sickens more than half a million Americans. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that the Trump administration has a better plan.
The Clinton administration agreed in 1997 to let five hog plants adopt the inspection system that the Trump administration wants to embrace for the whole industry. In 2013, the Agriculture Department’s inspector general reported that the pilot program had not demonstrably improved food safety. In response, the government defended the new system as no worse than the old one.
But there is some evidence of increased risk. Last year, the nonprofit Food & Water Watch used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain more recent inspection records for the plants in the pilot program. It found 22 instances between 2012 and 2016 in which companies were cited by the remaining federal inspectors for failing to identify and remove from the slaughter line a hog carcass that could cause food poisoning.
Using a pilot program is an excellent way to test a proposed change in regulation. But the point is to reach a clear conclusion. In this case, the government — rather astonishingly — has maintained the pilot program for two decades without proving that it works.
The Trump administration now says that expanding the pilot program to include a vast majority of the industry would significantly reduce episodes of salmonella poisoning. But outside experts point out that the administration simply assumes the testing methods that haven’t worked in the pilot program will begin to yield better results.
The Trump administration also foresees considerable financial benefits: The government would save $6.4 million a year, while the industry’s profits would rise by $47.3 million a year because slaughterhouses would be allowed to move hogs down the line at even higher speeds. But that would make life more difficult for the people who work the slaughter lines. The Agriculture Department insists it is not responsible for the safety of workers, and this is narrowly true. That job belongs to a different agency. But the White House is responsible for taking a broader view of proposed regulations. The government’s tabulation of the costs and benefits needs to weigh the consequences for the people who work in the plants against the benefits for the people who own the plants.
In other cases, too, the administration is allowing self-regulation contrary to evidence and experience...
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