USDA used questionable worker safety data in drafting pork inspection rules, inspector general says


By Kimberly Kindy, The Washington Post

June 25, 2020


The U.S. Department of Agriculture did not evaluate the accuracy of worker safety data it used to make its case for a new hog inspection system that allows plants to run processing lines at unlimited speeds, the Office of Inspector General has concluded.


The report, which was released Wednesday, also found that USDA was not transparent about the raw data it used in its worker safety analysis, making it impossible for outside experts to evaluate the agency’s conclusions.


The new system, which was finalized in October, shifts many food-safety tasks from federal inspectors to pork industry employees and reduces the number of USDA inspectors on slaughter lines in some plants by 40 percent, records show.


Prompted by the Inspector General report, a nonprofit group opposed to the new system said it will ask a judge to set aside the rule that created it.


When USDA proposed the new rule, which is voluntary for plants, it concluded injury rates for workers would likely be lower in the plants using the new system.


Worker safety advocates challenged these conclusions. They said workers would be working at a faster pace as they slaughtered hogs and then performed the intricate and repetitive work of cutting them into chops, hams and loins.


Illness rates for people who work in meatpacking plants — including carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis — are 16 times higher than the average for all other industries, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.


The Inspector General said that during the public comment period, USDA provided an analysis on worker safety based on Occupational Safety and Health Administration records it did not provide to the public. And the Inspector General “determined that [USDA] did not compare the OSHA data to any corroborating evidence to verify the reliability of these data used.”


USDA also “neither ensured that the data in the proposed rule were presented in an accurate manner nor disclosed all known limitations of the data,” the 36-page report said.


USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) said in an email that the Inspector General misapplied information to a preliminary analysis that was not made in support of its proposal. “Further, the OIG findings place an exaggerated emphasis on minor errors made in the presentation of the analysis – errors already corrected.”


Public Citizen, a nonprofit advocacy group, filed a lawsuit...