Opinion: Proposed Federal pork inspection changes may be a risk to public safety

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“The people of Chicago saw the government inspectors in Packingtown, and they all took that to mean that they were protected from diseased meat; they did not understand that these hundred and sixty-three inspectors had been appointed at the request of the packers, and that they were paid by the United States government to certify that all the diseased meat was kept in the state… And shortly afterward one of these, a physician, made the discovery that the carcasses of steers which had been condemned as tubercular by the government inspectors, and which therefore contained ptomaines, which are deadly poisons, were left upon an open platform and carted away to be sold in the city; and so he insisted that these carcasses be treated with an injection of kerosene–and was ordered to resign the same week! So indignant were the packers that they went farther, and compelled the mayor to abolish the whole bureau of inspection; so that since then there has not been even a pretense of any interference with the graft.”

Chapter 9, Upton Sinclair, The Jungle

Upton Sinclair’s 1906 look at a fictional Chicago slaughterhouse was the impetus for a White House special commission to investigate how pigs were processed in the Windy City.  President Theodore Roosevelt was appalled by the findings:

“The conditions shown by even this short inspection to exist in the Chicago stock yards are revolting…The report shows that the stock yards and packing houses are not kept even reasonably clean, and that the method of handling and preparing food products is uncleanly and dangerous to health.”

President Roosevelt called the conditions revealed in the special commission’s report “revolting.” In a letter to Congress, he declared, “A law is needed which will enable the inspectors of the [Federal] Government to inspect and supervise from the hoof to the can the preparation of the meat food product.”

The Special Commission report led to the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 over the strong objections of the meat packing industry.  The act authorized USDA inspectors to remove bad or mislabeled meat from entering the food chain.  Incidentally the same day Roosevelt signed the MIA he signed a law regulating food additives.  The law also prohibited mislabeling of drugs and food and ultimately led to the formation of the Food and Drug Administration.

Ever since, federal inspectors have inspected hog plants for diseased pork.  And the system has mostly worked, although far less than perfect.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports in the U.S. from 1998 to 2017 the have been 474 outbreaks due to pork-pathogens leading to 10,762 illnesses, 679 hospitalizations and six deaths.

Not perfect.  Room for improvement.

But as early as this month, the Trump administration could allow plant employees rather than federal inspectors to be responsible for hazard analysis and critical control points inspection measures.

The Modernization of Swine Slaughter Inspection was initially proposed by the Food Safety and Inspection Service in February 2018.

The new inspection system is voluntary.  Individual hog processing plants can either opt in to MSSI or continue to operate under current federal inspection rules.

The National Pork Producers Council loves the new rule.  The NPPC says the new system will allow USDA inspections to “partner with the pork industry to better ensure safe products are entering the marketplace.”

Huh?

It sounds suspiciously like the NPPC is glad the foxes will share responsibility for guarding the hog house. 

Who exactly will be training plant employees?  And how will the public know their training is adequate?  And will plant employee truly be willing to follow HACCP guidelines with their bosses looking over their shoulders?

Meanwhile, FSIS is “proposing to remove the generic E. coli sampling requirements for swine slaughter establishments to give establishments more flexibility in monitoring their process control and to make the Federal meat inspection regulations more consistent with the Federal poultry products inspection regulations.”

Yup, no more E-coli tests. 

The Washington Post report last month painted a rather grim picture of how the Modernization of Swine Slaughter Inspection could endanger public health.

The Washington Post article got the attention of pork slaughterers and the National Hog Farmer issued its own point by point rebuttal of the WAPO story.

If you read both pieces you are left with a sick in the pit of your stomach feeling that comes when you can’t discern the truth.  Frankly I don’t know with any high degree of confidence if FSIS’s plan will improve food safety.  That ain’t good.

About Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.

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