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Chief Operating Officer Frank Papenberg shows Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue around the processing floor of the Triumph Foods pork processing facility April 28, 2017. The facility houses 2,800 employees in St. Joseph, Mo. USDA photo by Preston Keres

USDA disputes Washington Post report on swine slaughter

In early April, the Washington Post reported that the U.S. Department of Agriculture was going to put pork inspection under industry control, rather than the control of federal inspectors. The USDA and the pork industry were quick to cry foul, with the USDA going as far as putting out a point-by-point press release repudiating the claims in the Post article.

At issue is the New Swine Slaughter Inspection System, which would be a voluntary inspection system for market hog slaughter establishments. The USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service has been studying potential changes to slaughter rules since the 1990s.

Under the proposal, which would affect a small number of slaughter facilities that choose to opt in, USDA inspectors still would inspect every carcass, but employees of the facilities would sort out sick animals from healthy animals. The rules also would allow line speeds to be increased.

"The proposed rule also allows innovation and flexibility to establishments that are slaughtering market hogs. Market hogs are uniform, healthy, young animals that can be slaughtered and processed in this modernized system more efficiently and effectively with enhanced process control," the USDA explained in January 2018.

There also would be changes to disease testing and sanitation protocols.

The Washington Post story quoted former USDA employees as saying the new rules would make the inspection process less effective and workers less safe.

The USDA, which operates the Food Safety and Inspection Service, disagreed.

"With modernized hog slaughter, FSIS is moving inspection closer to an approach supported by current food safety science. In fact, FSIS conducted a 20-year pilot called the HACCP-Based Inspection Model Project (HIMP) in five market hog establishments. The pilot has been ongoing throughout four presidential administrations producing the safest food supply in the world. Modernizing inspection through science is clearly in the best interest of public health. The work of FSIS to modernize inspection spans the last four presidential administrations."

The USDA also accused the Post of misrepresenting facts, including that non-federal employees would perform inspections.

"Again, only federal inspectors do meat inspections and under the proposed rule, FSIS inspectors would continue to conduct 100% ante-mortem inspection and 100% carcass-by-carcass inspection at post-mortem," a USDA release said.

The National Pork Producers Council's "Hogs on the Hill" blog also weighed in. Dr. Dan Kovich, a veterinarian who serves as the council's director of science and technology and previously worked for the state of Virginia in veterinary health and animal welfare and control programs and for USDA's FSIS, was interviewed for the Post piece but not quoted in it, the blog said.

Kovich's comments in the blog indicated that the Post story was off-base, including comments on USDA authority over systems, food-safety standards and pathogen testing.

"The new system allows its inspectors to spend less time on manual labor while focusing more on overseeing sanitation, food safety plans and general plant conditions," Kovich said.

On April 16, PolitiFact, a nonpartisan fact-checking website owned by the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit school for journalists, weighed in after Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, tweeted on April 8 that the USDA move "endangers everyone."

PolitiFact called Gabbard's comments misleading and rated them "mostly false." The site said government officials still would be in control of inspections and would require monitoring and process control and other testing "that experts said would be a greater food safety measure."

To read the Washington Post story: https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/pork-industry-soon-will-...

To read the PolitiFact piece: https://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2019/apr/16/tulsi-ga...

To read the USDA release: https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/newsroom/news-releases-stateme...