How Many Hogs Can Be Slaughtered Per Hour? Pork Industry Wants More
By Julie Creswell, The New York Times (NYT)
Aug. 9, 2019
The federal government is poised this month to adopt a rule that would essentially turn the largest pork processing lines in the United States into the autobahn: no speed limit.
Currently, plants are allowed to slaughter a maximum of 1,106 hogs per hour. As hogs move down the slaughter lines, federal inspectors stationed at each plant examine them and remove any parts potentially harmful to consumers.
But pork producers have pushed for a change to plant inspection regulations that would, among other things, do away with the speed limit and reduce the number of federal inspectors. For those in favor of the change, the advantages are clear. Plants would be able to slaughter more pigs and, therefore, make more money. The government would save money because it would not employ as many inspectors.
Proponents say speed limits are unnecessary anyway. They say that market hogs — about six months old and around 250 pounds — are generally healthy and that the elimination of maximum speeds would add flexibility to plant production schedules and staffing levels. The Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service said the revamped rule, which was proposed in February 2018, was based on current food safety science.
Watchdog groups, however, are meeting with the Office of Management and Budget this week and next to raise concerns, particularly about the effects that increased speeds could have on workers and public health. These critics see the proposed changes as part of the Trump administration’s goal of rolling back regulations to the benefit of big businesses.
The Food Safety and Inspection Service said that was nonsense, noting that it has been pushing for the rule for 20 years, spanning four supportive presidential administrations.
The agency currently assigns seven inspectors at various points along the slaughter and evisceration lines at the largest pork plants, who look at, examine and sniff carcasses for signs of disease and contamination. There is another inspector away from the slaughter line, and a public health veterinarian is on hand to condemn live animals that may be diseased or sick.
In the new model, two or three federal inspectors per shift would be on the slaughter and evisceration lines, overseeing plant employees who would take over time-consuming labor like removing lymph nodes to test for disease. Two others would perform other tasks like sanitation checks.
All of the pork eaten by consumers would still be examined by federal inspectors, the Food Safety and Inspection Service said in an emailed response to questions.
“The U.S.D.A. mark of inspection means something significant,” the agency said. “It means that every carcass has been inspected and passed for human consumption by F.S.I.S. inspection personnel. Every. Single. One.”
The agency says its analysis of data from five pork slaughter facilities in a pilot program shows that the updated inspection system has lower employee injury rates and is at least as safe for consumers as the traditional system. The agency is weighing a similar rule for beef, and Tyson Foods has expressed interest in using the new system in a beef plant it operates in Kansas.
The Food Safety and Inspection Service said its analysis showed the new system would provide “equivalent or greater public health protections” than the existing system.
If the rule goes into effect, the hundreds of swine slaughter plants in the country could choose to adopt it or not. The government expects the largest plants — roughly 40 that supply about 90 percent of the nation’s pork — to do so. At those plants, the number of federal inspectors could be reduced by up to 40 percent, or a total of about 147 inspectors. The agency estimates the savings to the federal government at nearly $25 million a year.
Dr. Pat Basu, the chief veterinarian at the Food Safety and Inspection Service from 2016 to 2018, drew a comparison to the decision in the mid-2000s to shift some of the Federal Aviation Administration’s airplane certification duties to manufacturers like Boeing. That move has come under scrutiny after two crashes of Boeing’s 737 Max aircraft. (When asked to respond, the service said it was “the most ridiculous question we have ever received.”)
Dr. Basu worries, among other things, that improper training of plant employees who take over responsibilities now performed by federal inspectors, such as sorting animals before slaughter, could result in a disease outbreak.
Watchdog groups argue that the Food Safety and Inspection Service is acting for the financial benefit of meatpacking giants like Tyson, the Brazilian-owned JBS and Smithfield Foods, owned by the Chinese-based WH Group.
“The fact that the U.S.D.A. is in charge of food safety is an oxymoron,” said Deborah Berkowitz, a senior official for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under President Barack Obama and now a worker-safety expert with the National Employment Law Project.
“The U.S.D.A. has always been there to promote the industry,” said Ms. Berkowitz, who has worked with unions that represent packing plant employees...
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