On a recent visit with some family, I became acquainted with NFL RedZone. For those of you not familiar with this television channel, it provides “whip-around coverage” of all the NFL games on a given Sunday. Whenever a team enters the “red zone”—the part of the football field between the 20-yard line and the goal line—NFL RedZone will switch over to that game’s television broadcast, and generally stay there until the team scores a touchdown or a field goal or turns the ball over or whatever. 

I found RedZone frenetic and rather obnoxious—when will we ever have a chance to talk? However, lots of fans, like my brothers, love RedZone because it cuts to the most important parts of the games: the scoring. Pro football players are amazing athletes, who clearly hold themselves to high standards. But at the end of each game, half of the players on the field are losers. The scoreboard doesn’t lie. That competition is what drives players to constantly improve and to perform amazing feats on the field.  

Now consider our meat and poultry inspection system. Raw meat and poultry make a lot of people sick. Raw pork alone causes over 10% of salmonellosis cases each year. But the blame for those illnesses is not evenly spread among the industry. Some companies, like the ones that supply Salmonella free ground beef to the national school lunch program, are “winning” the fight against dangerous pathogens. But figuring out who the winners are is not always easy, because USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has decided not to keep score. 

This is the tragedy of the recent hog slaughter modernization rule that FSIS published in the Federal Register on Tuesday, as described here by deputy undersecretary for food safety Mindy Brashears. The new rule will expand a pilot inspection program in which company employees take over government inspector duties, and limits online speed no longer apply. Will the new inspection program improves food safety? According to Dr. Brashears, “the five swine slaughter establishments that participated in the pilot performed as well as those under traditional slaughter inspection.” If we are to accept that track record, and there are good reasons not to, we might expect that the new rule will not actually improve food safety, but that it also will not make it worse.  

Except that the next hog slaughterhouses to adopt the new inspection system, and speed up their lines, may not perform as well as the ones in the pilot program. After all, the pilot involved just five plants. Those plants are run by the largest companies in the industry, and they were not randomly selected. To ensure that plants transitioning to the new inspection system also perform “as well as those under traditional slaughter inspection,” we need objective, universally applicable standards. That way, we can keep score. 

The hog slaughter modernization rule, however, gets rid of the scorekeeping. It removes codified Salmonella pathogen reduction performance standards for hog carcasses and replaces them with a requirement that plants conduct microbiological testing of their choice. In this way, it gives companies “flexibility” to determine whether they are maintaining “process control.” And it also makes comparing Salmonella contamination levels at two plants impossible, because government inspectors will not collect samples from plants to determine compliance with any set standard. 

To be fair, the old pathogen reduction performance standards were outdated, and government inspectors actually stopped collecting samples to test compliance with them during the Obama Administration. But that’s not because Salmonella and other pathogens are no longer a problem in pork. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), pork causes over half a million cases of foodborne illness in the U.S. each year. And FSIS has a standard to measure progress towards reducing those illnesses.

Since 2015, FSIS has been conducting “exploratory sampling” to measure Salmonella contamination on pork parts. A Salmonella performance standard for pork parts could apply to all of the large hog slaughter facilities that might transition to the new inspection program, as they all conduct not just slaughter but also further processing of carcasses into parts. Inexplicably, FSIS determined that it could not wait to develop a Salmonella performance standard for pork parts before undertaking the radical overhaul of the hog slaughter inspection system that is now underway. 

The hog slaughter modernization rule alludes to the ongoing process to establish a Salmonella performance standard for pork parts, and Dr. Brashears and other FSIS leadership have assured consumer stakeholders that a new standard will be proposed by year’s end. In a hopeful sign, the agency announced last Friday that, as of next month, it will expand pork parts sampling to all of the plants that will eventually be subject to the Salmonella performance standards under development. This is a step in the right direction, but the agency should not drag its feet in developing and implementing an actual standard, and then, crucially, sharing with the public data about which plants are complying, and which are not. Given the magnitude of the changes to the inspection system—a predicted 40% decreased in government inspectors, unlimited line speeds—consumers deserve the assurance that the new inspection regime will increase food safety, and not just industry profits. 


About the author:

Thomas Gremillion is the director of food policy at the Consumer Federation of America.

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