Some food safety advocates are lashing out against USDA regarding the newly implemented rules for pig slaughter, the New Swine Inspection System (NSIS), and say the program is setting the stage for a potential public health disaster—one that could bring on another infectious disease that could come from animals.
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Under the new protocols, which were finalized in late 2019, establishments are allowed to determine for themselves what line speeds are adequate to effectively eliminate fecal contamination and comply with microbial standards. Additionally, NSIS decreases USDA inspections by 40 percent.
Ryan Talbott, staff attorney at the Center for Food Safety, says the new rules mean that slaughter plant employees, who have no minimum education or training requirements, are charged with identifying animals that look diseased before and after slaughter. “This is contrary to the Federal Meat Inspection Act, which requires this job to be done by federal inspectors,” he says. “The new rules also eliminate limits on line speeds, which means carcasses will be moving faster, making it harder—and more dangerous—for slaughter plant employees to trim carcasses. Additionally, since the rules reduce the number of federal online inspectors by 40 percent, this increases the burden on remaining inspectors to effectively do their jobs.”
Earlier this year, Food & Water Watch filed a lawsuit against the FDA, alleging that these measures are unlawful and can lead to problematic food safety. This was the third lawsuit to come about since the rules. “Our concern is the impact that this will all have on public health,” says Zach Corrigan, senior staff attorney for Food & Water Watch. “You are turning over critical responsibilities from those who spent weeks training to the companies themselves with no mandatory training. And they will be doing inspections when they have a counter interest, which is getting product out quickly and cheaply.”
Talbott adds, “Instead of reducing the role of federal inspectors, USDA should be ensuring there are enough trained federal inspectors in slaughter plants doing their job to protect public health,” he said. “Instead, USDA is abdicating its obligation and allowing the fox to guard the henhouse.”
The organization also says the policy will increase the injury rate among meatpacking workers—which is already nearly 2.5 times higher than the national average for all industries—as well as the risk of meat contamination and the number of pigs who are improperly stunned and remain conscious as their throats are slit and they are dumped into scalding-hot hair-removal tanks.
Proponents of the new regulations say that the rules incentivize investment in new technologies while ensuring a safe supply of American pork. “The new inspection system upholds the same food and worker safety standards, but allows pork packers and processors additional flexibility in running their operations,” says Julie Anna Potts, The North American Meat Institute’s president and CEO. “While some members may continue to operate under the traditional system, those who want to change can. This new system provides opportunities for innovation in production that will benefit the entire industry.”
Additionally, David Herring, president of the National Pork Producers Council, noted that the new inspection system codifies the advancements the industry has made into law, reflecting a 21st century industry.