Food & Water Watch: Confirmed: USDA Now Pursuing Privatized Beef Inspections

“The previous attempts at privatized inspection have led to weaker food safety performance and are a ploy by the industry to increase line speeds.”

posted 06.10.19

Washington, D.C. — For years, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has been steadily working to privatize many food safety inspection functions in poultry and pork slaughter facilities. Now, documents obtained by Food & Water Watch via the Freedom of Information Act confirm that the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is pursuing deregulation of the inspection system for beef slaughter plants, in spite of recent denials made by agency officials.

This change to inspection in beef slaughter follows on controversy about similar changes in the poultry and pork sectors, which have put consumer safety at risk. In 1998, the agency launched the HACCP-based Inspection Models Project (HIMP), a pilot program in two dozen poultry plants and five hog slaughter plants. In those pilot plants, the number of FSIS inspectors is reduced and their jobs are performed by company employees. Until now, the beef industry had never expressed an interest in setting up a similar pilot in beef slaughter. But in March, Tyson Foods filed a regulatory waiver request with FSIS to set up a HIMP model project in one of its beef slaughter plants located in Holcomb, KS.

In 2014, FSIS finalized the rule for the New Poultry Inspection System, which expanded this privatized inspection system to the entire poultry industry. Even though FSIS has embarked on this privatized inspection system in poultry, it will not have an evaluation completed on the food safety impact of changing the inspection scheme until 2022.

On February 1, 2018, FSIS proposed a rule to create the New Swine Slaughter Inspection System for pork. The agency had been expected to finalize the rule this spring, but recent Congressional action may have temporarily stopped its implementation. In May 2013, the USDA Office of the Inspector General published a scathing audit report of FSIS inspection activities in swine slaughter facilities in which it observed, “We… found FSIS could not determine whether the goals of a pilot program… were met because FSIS did not adequately oversee the program. In the 15 years since the program’s inception, FSIS did not critically assess whether the new inspection process had measurably improved food safety at each (pilot) plant, a key goal of the program.”

“The previous attempts at privatized inspection have led to weaker food safety performance and are a ploy by the industry to increase line speeds,” said Tony Corbo, a senior lobbyist with Food & Water Watch. “The Tyson plant in Holcomb, Kansas is approved to operate at the current maximum line speed allowable, 390 head per hour. FSIS management has had difficulty meeting its inspection staffing requirements in the past in western Kansas, which has contributed to beef slaughter plants not being able to maintain maximum line speeds. Tyson’s solution seems to be to get rid of the government inspectors.”

Food & Water Watch mobilizes regular people to build political power to move bold and uncompromised solutions to the most pressing food, water, and climate problems of our time. We work to protect people’s health, communities, and democracy from the growing destructive power of the most powerful economic interests.