If I asked you to design a system to protect workers at meat-packing plants while at the same time lowering the possibility of food contamination, what would it look like?

Slower meat processing line speeds and greater numbers of food inspectors and inspections… right?

As an equation it would look like this:

Slower line speeds + More inspection = Less food contamination.

But Big Meat and USDA don’t think much of that. For years Big Meat has lobbied Congress and USDA to increase line speeds and reduce inspections on the line saying it would reduce food contamination. As an equation it looks like this: 

Faster line speeds + Less inspection = Less food contamination.

Does anyone not a part of Big Meat really believe that?

But that’s been the holy grail for Big Meat – and their USDA enablers haven’t been shy about cutting a few corners to prove that they’re right.  

That’s the new conclusion of an USDA Inspector General Report, which flayed USDA’s worker safety data used to draft new pork inspection rules designed to allow pork processing lines to run at unlimited speeds. What a surprise (read dripping with irony).

The Inspector General report released last month found USDA “neither ensured that the data in the proposed rule were presented in an accurate manner nor disclosed all known limitations of the data.” Further the IG “determined that [USDA] did not compare the OSHA data to any corroborating evidence to verify the reliability of these data used.”

It’s truly damning that USDA did not want the public to know it was manipulating bogus information.  

Here’s the backstory: when the proposed rule was first proposed in the Federal Register in 2018, USDA withheld the data it used to claim injury rates would drop. Researchers sought the data in February 2018 through a Freedom of Information request to USDA’s Food and Inspection Service, but did not receive the data set until September 2018, well after the public comment period for the proposed rule closed in April 2018. Get the picture?

Only then did the truth begin to emerge. Texas State researchers Celese Monforton and Phillip W. Vaughan – made hash of USDA’s data set. Among the mistakes – a small non-random sample size, as well as a failure “to consider the dependence of observations in the series of injury rates.” The researchers did not mince words in concluding that “In sum, the limitations described above make it impossible for FSIS to draw any statistically valid conclusion about worker injury rate differences in HIMP versus traditional plant.” 

Still USDA kept its head down and continued to plug away at finalizing the rule in October 2019.  

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said the finalized rule was just dandy, thank you very much:

“This regulatory change allows us to ensure food safety while eliminating outdated rules and allowing for companies to innovate. The final rule is the culmination of a science-based and data-driven rule making process which builds on the food safety improvements made in 1997, when USDA introduced a system of preventive controls for industry. With this rule, FSIS will finally begin full implementation of that program in swine establishments.”

But by then USDA’s Inspector General was on the case, finding USDA and FSIS was playing loose with the data. Still, that didn’t stop FSIS from taking a swipe at the IG telling the Washington Post that “…the OIG findings place an exaggerated emphasis on minor errors made in the presentation of the analysis – errors already corrected.” 

Non-profit advocacy group Public Citizen, which sued USDA last year over the new pork processing system, now says it will make the case that the IG report requires USDA to tear up the Modernization of Swine Slaughter Inspection rule and start again.

Given how USDA irresponsibly got to this point I’d have to say a line-by-line evaluation of the finalized rule for safety of workers and the public should be undertaken. Rapidly.

After all, ya can’t argue simple math…

Slower line speeds + More inspection = Less food contamination.

About Dave Dickey

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 the Midwest Center covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

Type of work:

David Dickey always wanted to be a journalist. After serving tours in the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Navy, Dickey enrolled at Rock Valley Junior College in Rockford, Ill., where he was first news editor...

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