In a recent hearing, Jeffrey White, U.S. District Judge of the Northern District of California, upheld a USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) program for pork processing plants that gives plant employees a greater role in the inspection process. The New Swine Slaughter Inspection System, enacted by the agency in late 2019, changed the way pork slaughterhouses run, ruling that pork processing plants’ employees could conduct inspections in the plant, thereby reducing the number of government inspectors needed by as much as 40%.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit were Food and Water Watch, the Center for Food Safety, and the Humane Farming Association. The lawsuit alleged that NSIS violated the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA). In his ruling, Judge White noted that the inspections by employees did not violate this legislation.
In his ruling, Judge White stated that, although the 2019 final rule permits plant employees to pre-sort animals at NSIS plants, federal inspectors still inspect all hogs prior to slaughter, and the hogs that exhibit signs of disease upon that inspection are set apart and slaughtered separately as required by FMIA. He also stated that, since FMIA requires an examination and inspection of all swine but does not require all swine to be examined at rest and in motion, under NSIS, federal inspectors do inspect all “normal” healthy animals at rest.
USDA has looked to make changes to the way slaughterhouses were run since the early 1990s, and the agency produced the new swine slaughter inspection rule during President Trump’s administration. According to USDA’s declaration, plant employees could make the first level of safety determinations about animals and carcasses before federal inspectors made any final determination.
“This reflects the continued evolution and modernization of animal inspection by redirecting, in essence, resources where they can be used best,” says Shawn Stevens, a food industry attorney with the Food Industry Counsel and member of the Food Quality & Safety Editorial Advisory Board, adding that inspectors have more tasks to conduct than ever before, such as looking at microbiological testing and other data to keep food safe. “In response, it’s reasonable to understand the agency’s attempt to allocate resources and allow plant employees to do some of the ‘prep’ work for the federal inspection.”
This way, when the animal or parts are presented to the inspectors, they can be more efficient, adds Stevens. “I don’t see it as any different than a doctor who relies upon a nurse to ask questions of a patient so the doctor is well informed and do their job. We just now have plant employees getting things ready.”
Stevens notes that it’s clear that with the new rule, federal inspections are still occurring and undertaking required steps. Therefore, any concerns by the plaintiff of slaughterhouses hiding defects and issues should be assuaged, he adds, as these inspectors are in the facilities every day and have the responsibility to walk through and ensure all programs and policies are being followed. “Their responsibility is to ensure the products coming out of these facilities are safe, so it’s illogical to think they are going to do anything or propose any rules that will make our food less safe,” he says. “Everything our agency does is very visible and there’s political ramifications and the last thing they would ever want to do is to adopt a rule that would put consumers at risk.”
The National Pork Producers Council was pleased with the ruling. “The NSIS incentivizes investment in new technologies while ensuring a safe supply of wholesome American pork,” the organization said in a statement. “Pork producers use science-based approaches to continuously improve and modernize their practices to ensure product quality and consistency and their workforce’s health and safety.”