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Everybody kept telling us that USDA's new Swine Inspection Service was just dandy. Former USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue literally gushed and fawned over it

“This regulatory change allows us to ensure food safety while eliminating outdated rules and allowing for companies to innovate.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.”

North American Meat Institute President and CEO Julie Anna Potts trumpeted its benefits:

“The New Swine Inspection System will allow plants who choose to participate an opportunity for food safety innovation, a benefit to consumers and our industry at large. Under both the new and existing systems, our members’ highest priorities are to provide safe products to the public and to ensure the workforce on which they depend, is also safe.”

And in releasing the final rule in the Federal Register the Food and Inspection Service pinky-swore to the public that NSIS “...has been demonstrated to provide public health protection at least equivalent to the existing inspection system.

As far as Big Meat was concerned it got the brass ring. Unlimited line speeds for swine processing with pork company employees taking over some of the duties of federal inspectors.

In pushing for rule changes Big Meat pointed to a five-company pilot program which they said proved the system was safe. But now it turns out that USDA was hiding pilot test results that suggest the opposite.

A Freedom of Information Act request for records on the pilot program from nonprofit consumer group Food and Water Watch showed USDA kept mum on the pilot program results of faster line speeds and fewer on-line federal inspectors. In a word it was a disaster.

USDA pilot test inspectors found that by the time slaughtered hogs reached the end of the line they were nearly twice as likely to have fecal and digestive matter on the carcasses compared with typical plants of comparable size based on inspection numbers between 2014 and 2017.    And that's a huge NO-NO because this kind of contamination typically contains high levels of salmonella and E. coli. It's a serious issue. So serious that USDA's regulations have a zero-tolerance policy as in nothing, nada, zippo.

But instead of reporting the numbers out and telling Big Meat they need to fix the problem, USDA pushed ahead with rulemaking.

Faster than you can say pork chops and apple sauce Food and Water Watch and the FOIA results to its original lawsuit, one of three pending seeking to overturn the NSIS.

A lot is at stake. If NSIS remains the law of the land, USDA estimates that over the next five years 40 pork plants accounting for roughly 93 percent of all U-S pork sales will opt-in. USDA put the estimate at 78 percent. That's still the majority of all pork sold in the U.S.

Big Meat has already lost its effort to get the Food and Water Watch case thrown out on technicalities, arguing plaintiffs had no standing. But Northern District Court of California Judge Jeffery S. White wasn't having any of that guff:

“Accordingly, accepting Plaintiffs’ allegations as true, the Court concludes there is a credible threat that Plaintiffs’ members face an increased risk of illness from consuming adulterated pork products because of the Final Rule, sufficiently establishing standing based on potential future harm.”

See ya in court.

Now it will be up to Big Meat, to prove NSIS won't eventually kill people in ever-increasing numbers. The North American Meat Institute suggested the cause of increased pork contamination wasn't due to higher slaughter line speeds but rather an increase in spot checks by federal inspections after slaughtered carcasses left the line. Huh???  If that sounds familiar it's the same sort of argument the previous federal administration was making about COVID 19; “gee whiz, we are testing more so of course there will be more positive results.”

Of course, that's nonsense. Food and Water Watch senior attorney Zach Corrigan says the lawsuit is based on the number of violations per spot check and those numbers nearly doubled in the pilot program.

Yikes.

One would hope that newly minted USDA secretary Tom Vilsack will keep his boss appraised of how the case is proceeding. The POTUS made his view known during a Yahoo visual townhall last year on the campaign trail addressing worker safety:

“Whether it’s cattle, whether it’s beef, whether it’s pigs, whether it’s chicken, they’re moving down that line faster and faster and faster to increase the profit rate,” Biden said. “People are getting sicker. People are getting hurt.”

Presumably the president will feel the same way about food-born illnesses.

Judge White is holding a joint case management conference on the case next month. I don't expect Big Meat will want to modify NSIS and the Food and Water Watch folk surely are in for the long haul. Judge White could very well end up issuing a temporary injunction on NSIS, requiring Big Meat to ratchet down line speeds and increase federal inspections on the lines. That would be a good first step while the case works its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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.