USDA Proposal to Speed Up Hog Slaughter Line Is Challenged

(Bloomberg) -- A U.S. Department of Agriculture proposal to overhaul how hog slaughterhouses are inspected and allow faster production lines relied on flawed data that played down dangers to workers, according to an academic report issued Wednesday.

The USDA announced the inspection proposal in January. It would shift some of the responsibilities of federal inspectors to plant workers and lift caps on how fast hogs can be slaughtered as they move along the production line. Line speeds have historically been limited by the ability of government inspectors to examine each carcass. In hog plants, line speeds are currently capped at 1,106 hogs per hour.

As part of its inspection proposal, the USDA said five plants that had participated in a pilot program had “lower mean injury rates” than traditional plants used for comparison.

Celeste Monforton, a lecturer in public health at Texas State University, and Phillip Vaughan, a research scientist at the school, reviewed the data behind the USDA’s assertion, which was obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request. They concluded there were too many limitations with the data to support the USDA’s assertion, which they said was based on “the most rudimentary analysis.”

For instance, they said that the pilot plants weren’t selected randomly and that the sample size used by the agency was too small. In addition, the USDA didn’t have the same amount of data from each of the plants that it compared. It had consecutive years of data for only 8 of the 24 traditional plants it used in the analysis and only three of the pilot plants; none had data for the full nine-year period of analysis.

“They just added them all up and made an average,” Monforton said. “I was like, really?”

A spokeswoman for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service declined to comment specifically on the academics’ report, saying the agency was “not going to regulate through responding to media attacks.” The USDA has previously defended its analysis of the worker data.

Serious injuries requiring work restrictions or days away from the job are more than three times as high in the meatpacking industry than in U.S. industries as a whole, government data show.

“In plain language, the USDA’s analysis is a joke,” said Debbie Berkowitz, program director for worker safety and health with the National Employment Law Project, who called on the agency to conduct a more robust study of the inspection proposal’s impact on workers. “USDA is using a faulty data analysis, one that it tried to hide from the public, to justify a proposal that will clearly endanger workers.”

The USDA spokeswoman said the agency was still reviewing thousands of comments it had received about the proposed hog inspection rule earlier this year. “If NELP felt so strongly about the proposed rule, it should have submitted comments,” she said.

NELP submitted comments to the USDA on April 30, noting that it couldn’t comment specifically on the USDA’s worker safety analysis because the agency didn’t make public the data backing up its claim.

Berkowitz said she had submitted NELP’s own Freedom of Information Act request for the data on March 6 that asked for expedited processing so she could turn in remarks before the USDA’s comment period closed. She said she received a response to that FOIA request five months later, long after the comment period had ended.

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