Government

Watchdog questions USDA rule on hog plants

Proposed system would allow faster slaughter lines

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue holds up a tie with pigs during the 2017 Iowa Ag Summit in Des Moines, Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017. (Matthew Patane/The Gazette)
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue holds up a tie with pigs during the 2017 Iowa Ag Summit in Des Moines, Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017. (Matthew Patane/The Gazette)

WASHINGTON — The Office of Inspector General is evaluating whether the U.S. Department of Agriculture concealed information and used flawed data to develop and promote a new hog inspection system that would shift many food-safety tasks from federal inspectors to pork industry employees.

The USDA’s inspector general, Phyllis Fong, notified 16 members of Congress last Friday that her office has launched the probe in response to concerns lawmakers raised in March, according to a letter obtained by the Washington Post.

Under the proposed new inspection system, plant owners would be allowed to run pork plant slaughter lines as fast as they want, a provision that has worker safety advocates concerned that injury rates would rise.

The USDA said in a proposed rule — which if finalized would create the new system — that its data shows worker injury rates probably would be lower than those at traditional plants where limits are placed on line speeds.

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-highest-ranking Senate Democrat, and more than a dozen other Democrats sought the inspector general’s probe after two university experts reviewed the USDA’s data and concluded “it is impossible” for the department to “draw any statistically valid conclusion about worker injury rate differences.”

The data was not released until months after the 60-day public comment period for the rule had closed in April 2018 and only after Freedom of Information Act requests were filed by a Texas State University researcher and a worker safety advocacy group, the National Employment Law Project.

“Bowing to the meatpacking industry, the USDA relied on sketchy data to justify a major inspections change that could create unsafe working environments at pork processing plants in America,” Durbin said in a statement. “I am concerned that the USDA also tried to hide this data from the public.”

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A Post analysis of the public comments showed that out of 84,000 public remarks made on the rule, 87 percent were either opposed or expressed negative opinions about the proposal.

The USDA declined to comment on the Inspector General probe. In earlier statements, it has said the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, not USDA, has the “statutory and regulatory authority to promote workplace safety and health.”

Illness rates for people who work in the meatpacking plants are 16 times higher than the average for all other industries, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The proposed hog-slaughter rule is based on a study that began 20 years ago, ultimately including five large plants. Efforts to expand the program have sputtered under past administrations, but Trump administration officials have pushed forward.

The USDA expects 40 of 612 hog plants will use the system. Collectively, officials say, these plants account for 90 percent of the pork produced in the United States.

The inquiry is expected to be complete by the end of the year, an inspector general spokeswoman said.

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