After 20 years of studying the issue through four administrations, USDA is moving forward to give industry a bigger say in food safety operations.
The Trump administration is taking steps to overhaul the pork inspection process in a manner it says will maximize efficiency and increase oversight, but federal employees are expressing outrage over plans they say devalue their work and careers and threaten the safety of the American people.
The Agriculture Department issued a final rule in September, completing a process 20 years in the making that will allow pork processing plants to increase the line speed of their slaughter operations and exercise more control over the food safety involving their animals.
Starting later this month, when the government begins implementing the changes, company employees will sort healthy pigs from unhealthy ones and identify defects on carcasses after slaughter, allowing USDA to slash the number of federal inspectors it maintains on site. The rule sparked pushback from consumer advocates, plant employees and government food safety inspectors alike, and is the subject of three different lawsuits alleging violations of various workplace and food safety laws. The administration, however, says the change will save taxpayer dollars, speed up slaughter operations and lead to consumer savings.
Employees at USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service say their biggest concern with the New Swine Slaughter Inspection System, known as NSIS, is uncertainty. As USDA pushes more inspection and remediation work to private sector plant employees, it will require fewer federal FSIS inspectors on site at plants. The agency is converting the remaining jobs from lower-ranked food inspector positions to slightly higher-ranked consumer safety inspection roles. That means employees will have to compete for fewer positions. Under FSIS’ estimates, about 147 food inspectors will lose their jobs.
“It is demoralizing,” said Paula Schelling, a food inspector for 32 years and head of the American Federation of Government Employees council that represents 6,500 FSIS employees. “The uncertainty of everything that is going on, it’s got everyone a little shaken.”
She described the situation as forcing employees, some of whom have held their jobs for decades, to reapply for the new positions. If they are not selected to stay at their plants in the new roles, they will be forced to relocate or find a new line of work.
“They may have to move 100 miles away, or 1,000 miles away,” Schelling said.
FSIS says it will help those employees find new positions.
“I can tell you right now we have more vacancies than 147 food inspector positions nationwide,” said Hany Sidrak, FSIS’ deputy assistant administrator, Office of Field Operations. He said the agency will offer two positions to every employee dislocated by the new system and make accommodations if they hear about a vacancy on their own. The agency will also pay for relocation costs.
Not all employees are likely to stick around, however. Ten years ago, Schelling said, an inspection job had upward mobility and the promise of a long-term career.
“Now people are looking to get out, especially the ones who are right in between having this be their whole career,” she said.
Their concerns, however, are not just personal.
“The plant employees are getting paid by the plant to do a job,” Schelling said of the pork producers’ workforce. Whereas private companies are focused on maximizing profits, FSIS employees are driven by the mission of protecting consumers from unsafe products. “The plant employee is going to do exactly what the plant tells them to do,” she said.
According to the Trump administration, the changes in pork inspection are benign. Every animal is still reviewed by a federal inspector after slaughter and plants are motivated to ensure consumer safety to avoid the risk of line slowdowns or suspensions.
Hany Sidrak, FSIS’ deputy assistant administrator in the Office of Field Operations, said federal inspectors will still inspect each animal after slaughter. “The difference is there is someone else who is looking at those things prior to the inspector getting to inspect.”
Zach Corrigan, the senior staff attorney for Food and Water Watch, an organization involved in the latest of the three lawsuits challenging the new inspection rule, suggested the Agriculture Department is “quick to say there’s nothing that’s changed” while leaving out key details. Only 5%-10% of animals moving prior to slaughter are screened for possible disease or infection, he noted.
There is “a different incentive for the companies that are trying to get product out the door and their employees who are trying to make their supervisors happy versus inspectors who want to make sure there is not tainted meat that makes it out onto our plates,” Corrigan said.
While the final rule notes inspectors will “observe establishment employees performing sorting procedures,” Sidrak concedes federal inspectors will have very little authority over them.
“We don’t really supervise plant employees,” he said. “They have their own supervisors.”
While the changes are meant to make the slaughter process more efficient, critics suggest that giving plant employees responsibility for identifying potential problems could actually make it harder for federal inspectors to catch contaminated animals. The private sector workers will make an initial determination on a carcass, for example, and trim bruises and other defects.
“This allows employees to either willfully, or just through negligence, trim signs of disease and therefore make it much harder for inspectors left at their inspection station to do their job,” Corrigan said.
Critics of the plan also highlight that no training is required of the private sector plant employees who will be taking over some of the work previously performed by federal inspectors. USDA has made training guidelines available on its website, but Sidrak acknowledged it has no enforcement mechanism to require its use.
“When we put guidelines, it’s not the power of the regulation,” he said. “They can choose to use it or not. The guidelines to the industry is, ‘Ok, here’s the best practices. We’re sharing our experiences as an agency. It’s up to you to make use of that.’”
Corrigan calls it “crazy” to throw “undereducated, undertrained” plant employees into the deep end without any required swimming lessons. He points out that USDA estimates plants will spend four hours to train employees tasked with new responsibilities.
“That is nuts when you consider the technical requirements for being able to look at an animal, being able to look at a carcass, being able to slice up lymph nodes—to transfer many of these [responsibilities] to employees with no mandatory training,” he said, “[it is] absolutely ludicrous in our mind.”
Sidrak said training for establishment employees is “self-monitored, so to speak,” while noting the identification of unsafe food does not have to come just from direct inspector observation.
“People talk,” he said. “We get intel from all over the place.”
‘This System Works’
Sidrak said his inspectors will still examine each animal before and after slaughter. If plants fail to train their employees properly and animals with food safety issues are missed, he explains, they will face consequences. FSIS issues non-compliance records, which can lead to enforcement actions.
“Those types of records are very important for us to see if they are on the trending up or trending down,” Sidrak said.
The agency does not plan, however, to assess the new system as a whole. Such oversight, it said, is unnecessary because the initiative has already proven itself effective over the last 20 years. In a rule first published in 1997, FSIS created a pilot program to test the system now being implemented on a much wider basis.
After two decades of experience with the pilot, the agency is confident the final rule is appropriate, said Sidrak, who has worked on the pilot nearly since its inception. “And we can certainly say that this system works.”
In a report USDA published on the pilot, it found the system actually resulted in stronger oversight because it freed some line inspectors to focus on broader compliance oversight. Additionally, USDA found that plants met certain regulations at a higher rate, the rates of non-food safety defects dropped and salmonella testing rates stayed stable or decreased. The National Pork Producers Council, a membership group representing the pork industry, has endorsed the plan, saying it would lead to a safer product.
“By enabling FSIS inspectors to focus on issues more pertinent to animal welfare, food safety and sanitation, the NSIS will help to provide for a safer food supply, while allowing packing companies to more effectively use their staff and resources,” NPPC said. “The U.S. pork industry has long been a global leader in offering a quality product to consumers domestically and abroad, and the NSIS program advances this position.”
A Government Accountability Office audit of USDA’s findings, however, said its conclusions were not transferable to the broader network of swine plants. The data used to compare plants participating in the pilot and those not participating were not analogous, the auditors said.
A subsequent inspector general report found three of the 10 FSIS-inspected plants with the most noncompliance records participated in the pilot, including the plant that had 50% more noncompliance records than the next highest one. Participating facilities did not follow all inspection requirements, the IG found. USDA has not forced any plants out of the program despite the department suggesting it addressed the issues the IG identified, and it will allow any plant to participate in the program’s expansion despite an IG recommendation to move forward only with plants that have maintained strong compliance records. The department also said it was unnecessary to require plants moving to the new system to develop transition plans.
“This final rule is based on 20 years of a pilot program,” said Maria Machuca, a USDA spokeswoman. “We don’t make any decisions thinking, ‘Would this work or not?’ This is based on data that proves that this is feasible.”
Sidrak said the agency will continue to monitor individual establishments. Those that rack up noncompliance records could see their production lines slowed, or shut down altogether if they fail to improve.
“There’s a whole host of measures and actions that the agency will take,” Sidrak said.
But forcing plants out of NSIS and back to traditional inspections is not likely to be one of those actions. Instead, Sidrak said plants may decide on their own that the new system is not working for them.
“Could the plant in theory say we’ve tried NSIS and we want to convert back to the traditional?” Sidrak pondered. “Would we accept that? Yes,” he said.
Inspectors ‘Are Going to Leave’
While the Swine Slaughter Inspection System is being implemented under the Trump administration, it stems from the pilot program dating back through three previous administrations. The Obama administration in 2015 overhauled the inspection process for poultry plants, also following an extensive pilot program. Observers credited USDA with using a softer touch with its employees during that effort, however, offering early retirement incentives to impacted workers and staggering implementation so inspectors had more time to find new jobs or apply for vacancies.
Just 45 poultry plants converted to the new inspection system in the first year, though that number grew to 125 plants—nearly half of all facilities—by January 2020. USDA predicts just 35 of the nation’s 600 hog plants will join the five pilot facilities in converting, though those 40 represent about 90% of all pork production in the country.
While Obama’s USDA allowed only 20 poultry facilities to pilot faster line speeds, Trump’s will enable all swine facilities to increase their production rates under the new system. Under Trump, USDA has also offered waivers for the poultry plants to slaughter animals more quickly.
This time around, FSIS has not announced any plans to offer separation incentives to employees and has so far refused to negotiate with its union over the changes.
“They are not communicating with us in any way, shape or form,” said Schelling, the union president.
Tony Corbo, another official at Food and Water Watch, expects all of those factors to spark dissatisfaction in the federal inspector ranks.
“This is going to create acrimony within the workforce,” he said. Corbo notes that while FSIS is offering employees the opportunity to apply for jobs at other plants, many would be shifting from one species to another and the agency is offering little training this time around.
And while USDA said it has vacancies for every impacted employee (Government Executive reviewed FSIS vacancy data through September 2018, which showed the agency maintained a vacancy rate of about 10%—or 700 positions—in its frontline inspection workforce), it is unlikely that all of them will agree to relocate.
“There are going to be some who are going to leave,” Corbo predicted, citing a trend from the poultry process. “Some of the more seasoned employees are going to leave.”
Some veteran inspectors have already voiced their concerns. Five employees who worked at plants participating in the swine pilot program provided affidavits in 2014 to the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower advocacy group, describing the flaws they saw in giving plant operators more control over inspections. Three employees remain anonymous but two, Joe Ferguson and Sherry Medina, spoke out to NBC News in December.
USDA at the participating plants "gave up command and control and gave the regulated industry free reign to do as they please,” Ferguson wrote in his affidavit. After describing some of the improper inspection methods the plant employees use due to insufficient training, he added, “Personally, I will not eat any products that bear the name of the company for which this meat is produced. I don't think that it is wholesome or safe to consume."
FSIS’ Sidrak blames the inspectors’ union for negative perceptions about the change. The agency has held town halls and sent other communications to dispel those perceptions and win buy-in from employees it is converting to the new system. Sidrak noted that the use of sick leave at the pilot plants is down and job satisfaction is up because they are “doing much more technical stuff.”
“I really truly think and believe, and I’ve seen it, those couple people that spoke maybe in a negative sense, they definitely do not represent the opinions and experience of the vast majority of inspectors,” Sidrak said.
The inspectors who blew the whistle, however, were unequivocal about their disdain for the new system. One said the plant she worked at was marred by confusion and bad practices. Monitoring plant employees inspections is "a lot more work," the employee wrote, because the lines "are going way too fast."
“It's almost impossible to recognize problems with both carcasses and plant employees' activities at the high speed of a [pilot program] line,” the inspector said. "Moving forward with [the pilot program] in hog plants is a bad idea for the workers in these plants, USDA inspectors and consumers.”