The US Department of Agriculture has always struggled to balance a split personality: on one hand it’s supposed to “Provide all Americans access to a safe, nutritious and secure food supply.” While on the other hand, it is supposed to “Maximize the ability of American agricultural producers to prosper…” and “promote American agricultural products and exports.” Even in the best (Democratic) of times, the “prospering” and “promoting” tend to outweigh the “safe” and “nutritious.”
Oh, and nowhere in the USDA’s mission statement or strategic goals appears the concept of ensuring the safety and health of the workers who produce America’s food supply. That could get in the way of all the the promotion and prospering.
In an article in the Guardian, Deborah Berkowitz, a former high level OSHA official and currently at the National Employment Law Project, describes the growing toll that American workers are expected to pay — thanks to the Trump administration — to make sure the American food industry prospers:
The Trump administration has proposed a radical change in food safety protection. They’re misleadingly calling it the “Modernization of swine slaughter inspection rule”, but what it really does is roll back progress on protecting the public from serious and sometimes fatal diseases such as salmonella.
The proposal drastically reduces the number of trained government food inspectors in pork plants, turns over food safety functions to untrained plant managers, and by allowing for an unlimited increase in slaughter line speeds, puts public health, worker safety and animal welfare at risk.
What’s going on? Traditionally, USDA has positioned government food inspectors in pork processing plants to ensure the safety of the meat for those who will end up eating it down the line. Now, however, the Trump administration is proposing to eliminate 140 food inspectors who work in the nation’s hog slaughter plants, remove most of the remaining inspectors from the hog processing lines, and replace them with a smaller number of company employees, who have less training and will conduct fewer inspections.
According to Berkowitz, “It allows the industry to police itself, like the fox guarding the proverbial hen (or hog) house.”
What could possibly go wrong with that?
Suffer the Pigs. And Workers. And Eaters
OK, so all this might make some people nervous — like anyone who eats pork.
But what of the workers who put the pork on the plate?
Of critical concern, the proposal removes any maximum limits on line speeds in pig slaughter plants. Pigs are already slaughtered at an astonishing rate of approximately 1,100 per hour. With this new rule, those speeds could reach up to 1,300 or even 1,500 pigs per hour. This will directly harm the health and safety of the nation’s tens of thousands of meat-packing workers, make it harder for the limited number of meat inspectors to do their jobs, and jeopardize the welfare of more than 100 million pigs each year.
The proposed increase in line speeds will result in higher injury rates for workers in our nation’s packing houses. Scores of studies show that pork workers already face serious injury rates three times higher than the national average, and illness rates that are 17 times higher. The pork processing industry is one of the most dangerous for workers. The already breakneck line speeds, coupled with the forceful and repetitive nature of the jobs in meat-packing plants, lead to high rates of devastating injuries and illnesses.
The real goal of this proposal is to allow the meat-packing industry to increase its profits.
And if any of you snowflake vegetarian animal lovers out there were wondering how these changes “jeopardize the welfare of 100 million pigs” (any more than their welfare is already being jeopardized by being processed into bacon and barbecue…)
The removal of line speed caps has been shown to increase the chances for rough animal handling as employees feel the pressure to move pigs quickly through the slaughter. This increased speed can result in improper stunning that leads to animals being slaughtered while conscious. Fast line speeds may leave plant workers unable to detect signs of consciousness, or unable to stop the line in time to intervene.
In case you just want to ignore all of this depressing stuff and just eat your pork roast and pig’s feet in peace, think again:
A review of five plants that served as a pilot for this proposal reveals there were more food safety violations in these plants than in others. Additionally, a recent review by the USDA’s own office of inspector general found that the agency failed to provide adequate oversight of those plants, and the pilot plants may have a higher potential for food safety risks. Adding insult to injury, the USDA issued this proposal without any final review of the impact on public health.
So if the USDA is not concerned with animal health, worker health or public health, what are they concerned about?
According to Berkowitz, “Clearly, the real goal of this proposal is to allow the meat-packing industry to increase its profits. It’s all about lining the pockets of a few corporate executives – at the expense of consumer health, worker safety and animal welfare.”
What is to be done?
Pigs can’t talk. But workers and consumers can. NELP and other consumer and worker advocates are trying to encourage people to submit a personalized comment to the USDA to “let the USDA know we are fighting for consumer and worker safety and animal welfare.” The comment period ends May 2. It’s critical that the government hear from you. NELP provides a bit of help with your comments here.
It’s worked before. Followers of food or worker safety issues, and faithful readers of Confined Space may recall a similar struggle to protect the workers who process poultry. Workers and consumers won the latest battle over food and worker safety there. We can do it again!