About one-third of the U.S. House Democratic caucus has signed a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue demanding that USDA drop the Swine Slaughter Inspection Modernization Rule.

Led by long-time food safety advocate Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-CT, 63 of the 193 members of the House Democratic Caucus came down on the union side of one of USDA’s longest-running disputes.

USDA has promulgated a rule to allow more swine slaughter facilities to enlist in the HACCP-based Inspection Models Project, otherwise known as HIMP. On Feb. 1, USDA announced that in addition to requiring increased pathogen sampling in all swine slaughter establishments, it would allow more facilities into HIMP through the “New Swine Slaughter Inspection System” or NSIS.

Opposition from the union-allied Democrats likely does not surprise anyone at USDA. Unions have opposed HIMP since it was first proposed as a pilot in 1997. Federal courts gave unions a partial victory in 2001 cases that required USDA to produce more studies before moving forward.

The rhetoric has not changed much over the years. The letter to Perdue says “the rule will privatize the food safety inspection system in hog slaughter plants.” Food safety experts like Richard Raymond, who was Under Secretary for Food Safety during the second Bush administration, has long argued that the current system has FSIS inspection personnel sorting defective carcasses for producers when they should be focused on other food safety activities.

Two years ago, many of the same congressional Democrats, who mostly hail from urban areas, were successful in getting the Obama Administration to back off swine modernization. Obama’s Under Secretary for Food Safety, Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, strongly favored modernization.

Since the Jack-in-the-Box hamburger outbreak of E. coli O157: H7 some 25 years ago, HACCP practices have become almost uniform in the food industry. Unions and their allies in Congress oppose swine modernization because of concerns about staffing, line speeds, and injury risks.

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