The USDA is proposing a new rule to lift the caps on line speeds in meat processing plants. This new rule would allow individual plants to determine how quickly their pork will be processed on site.
The proposed rules under the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) New Swine Slaughter Inspection System (NSIS) would give hog slaughter plants the option to voluntarily join the new proposed inspection system. This new system would also put plant employees in charge of determining which animals are deemed unfit for processing.
The government employees who are currently in charge of completing this job would be moved to other areas of the plant to focus more on food safety. The proposed rule would increase the number of offline USDA inspection tasks but also continue 100% FSIS carcass-by-carcass inspection.
Additionally, with the cap on processing line speeds removed, packers would be responsible for maintaining animal welfare and employee safety regulations.
The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) supports the expansion of the USDA’s FSIS Inspection Model from the current five pilot locations to full-scale use.
Currently, pork plants process an average of between 950 and 1,000 hogs per hour. With new line speeds, this process could reach a predicted 1,295 hogs per hour.
While this new rule would increase production rates, worker safety experts expressed their opposing opinions, saying it would further increase the already high risk of food contamination and worker injuries seen in meat processing plants. With the current production rates, meatpacking workers already experience a risk of injury 17 times higher than workers in other industries around the world. Common injuries include tendonitis, carpal tunnel, and amputations.
Dr. Dan Kovich, a veterinarian with the National Pork Producers Council, explained that worries about increased chain speeds are unsupported, saying “The plants don’t have free will to run as fast as they want. They have to make sure they can still meet the letter of the law when it comes to animal welfare, food safety, and employee safety as they did before.”
Others who oppose the proposition argue that under the new rule, there will be a disproportionate amount of power in the hands of packers at the risk of animal welfare and employee safety.
But with Rabobank, research and advisory firm, predicting that by the end of this year, meat consumption levels will reach over 200 pounds per capita each year, experts believe these processes need to be reorganized the meet the increasing demands.
NPPC President Ken Maschhoff claimed the pilot program showed positive results and expanding the program will allow for a better focus on improving food safety while minimizing costs.
“The U.S. pork industry is the most competitive in the world because we have built a reputation for quality, affordability and food safety,” Maschhoff said. “We applaud the USDA for taking this step to strengthen our competitive position.”