The federal government wants to revamp hog slaughter inspections, proposing changes that were more than 15 years in the works and are being touted as ways to improve food safety. Critics argue they hand too much responsibility to meatpackers and may put workers’ safety at risk.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the proposals last week, which would, among other things, change the frequency of microbial testing for food-borne pathogens but let the packing plants select which bacteria they monitor.
“We would be removing the generic E. coli (testing) requirement and really allowing establishments to choose what they want to sample for,” according to Carmen Rottenberg, acting deputy undersecretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “because they’re in the best position to identify process control.”
Sampling would have to occur once just after slaughter and again after the carcass has been chilled, Rottenberg says, which is a change from current policies that require just one sample.
Pork-packing plants also could choose whether their employees do the first visual test for blemishes or visible cancers on incoming animals or continue to have federal inspectors do that. Regardless, government workers still would inspect every animal that gets butchered.
“These regulations are absolutely for the benefit of packers,” Seattle-based food safety attorney Bill Marler says. But he notes the changes could improve food safety due to the greater emphasis on microbial testing, which wasn’t as available or reliable when the old inspection rules were created decades ago.
The change also would lift a cap on how fast pigs can be processed, meaning there’d be no limit. That’s potentially beneficial for the industry.
“From a food safety point of view, if you get better results and if the line speed goes up, that’s okay with me,” Marler says. “If you’re not getting better results, bacterial results, then the line speed needs to slow down.”
The National Pork Producers Council, an industry group, backs the proposals.
“We have been waiting for this rule for a long time and we really do think it is a step forward across multiple fronts for the industry,” says Dan Kovich, the council’s director of science and technology.
He says the changes allow the government to focus on pathogen control, sanitation and humane handling of the animals.
“[Food Safety and Inspection Service] is going to be able to use their inspection resources for doing more of the things that help us control those unseen things,” Kovich says,”versus spending their time on the line looking for those things that plant employees are able to look for and sort out before it gets to the point of the FSIS inspection.”
But there are groups who believe the changes could be detrimental to workers. Left-leaning government watchdog group Food and Water Watch says in a statement: “This plan would put worker safety, humane slaughter compliance and food safety performance at risk.”
None of the proposals will go into effect immediately. They first must be published in the Federal Register, then go through a 60-day public comment period.
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