The US government has given the go-ahead to new rules to eliminate production line speed limits at pig slaughterhouses, deeming restrictions “unnecessary” despite fears that lifting them will worsen the already high number of serious injuries suffered by US meat plant workers.
Amputations, fractured fingers, second-degree burns and head trauma are just some of the serious injuries suffered by US meat plant workers every week, according to an investigation last year by the Guardian and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
The investigation found that US meat workers are already three times more likely to suffer serious harm than the average American worker, with pork and beef workers nearly seven times more likely to suffer repetitive strain injuries.
However, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) said maximum line speeds were an “unnecessary regulatory obstacle to industry innovation” and that its new rules – the first reform to pork inspections for 50 years – were overdue. They would, the department said this week, allow companies to bring in new food safety measures while still protecting public health.
The USDA rules will also allow state inspection officials at pig slaughterhouses to be replaced with company employees.
The government agency said that by requiring the pork industry to use its own staff to sort and remove unfit animals, the USDA will be able to free up resources to be used elsewhere. It insisted that under the new swine slaughter inspection system, USDA staff would continue to inspect 100% of animals before slaughter and carcasses afterwards.
“This regulatory change allows us to ensure food safety while eliminating outdated rules and allowing for companies to innovate,” said US agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue.
Campaigners claimed the rule change amounted to a privatisation of pig-slaughter inspection. “The least Trump’s USDA could do is be honest with the American people about the new, harmful hog slaughter inspection rule,” said Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food & Water Watch.Hauter’s organisation said that, according to USDA data, there would be a reduction of 40% in the number of USDA inspectors assigned to slaughter lines in plants that switch to the new rules.
“The implementation of the rule will result in the fox guarding the henhouse,” said Hauter. “With less government oversight over hog slaughter inspection, big meat companies will have the freedom to inspect themselves and push towards their goal of increasing line speeds. There’s no doubt about it: faster line speeds plus less inspection equals more food contamination.”
The National Pork Producers Council said the new inspection system, which has already been piloted by the USDA, would incentivise investment in new technologies while ensuring a safe supply of American pork.
The North American Meat Institute (NAMI) said providing safe pork to consumers and ensuring the safety of the workforce would remain the “highest priorities” under both the new and existing rules. It said that in the pilot program, pig slaughterhouses did not operate at line speeds that were significantly faster than the current maximum line speeds for market hogs.“Line speeds vary day to day, shift to shift. If someone calls in sick or equipment breaks, line speeds are adjusted. Plants would only run at speeds that maintain food safety, worker safety, animal welfare, and quality. [The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service] would constantly verify plants are maintaining food safety process control. If this new system allows for further innovation in this goal, it is a welcome option,” said NAMI spokesperson Sarah Little.Ted Genoways, author of The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food, an exposé of worker conditions inside US meat processing plants, said he believed the new rules would be disastrous.
“By allowing companies to run their production lines as fast as possible, the USDA is giving the green light to dramatically expanding the volume of meat production within an already strained system. In their own study group, this increased animal abuse, environmental violations, and work safety violations.
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“And by giving yet another break to corporate interests, the USDA is also harming small farmers who are producing safer and healthier pork,” he said.
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