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Suit alleges USDA puts consumers at risk

Center for Food Safety, Food & Water Watch sue over changes to swine slaughter inspection.

The Center for Food Safety, Food & Water Watch and two supporting members sued USDA on Jan. 13 alleging new inspection rules are contrary to the Federal Meat Inspection Act.

The lawsuit claims USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is effectively turning over critical regulatory duties to the meatpacking companies. “Under- or un-trained plant employees are now charged with identifying and notifying government inspectors when swine carcasses show serious diseases,” CFS and FWW allege, Politco reports.

This is the first suit challenging the rules because of the harm they may cause consumers.

What's the issue?

On Sept. 17, 2019, USDA announced a change to the nation's swine slaughter inspection system.

“This regulatory change allows us to ensure food safety while eliminating outdated rules and allowing for companies to innovate,” said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. “The final rule is the culmination of a science-based and data-driven rule making process which builds on the food safety improvements made in 1997, when USDA introduced a system of preventive controls for industry. With this rule, FSIS will finally begin full implementation of that program in swine establishments.”

Why are the Center for Food Safety and Food & Water Watch suing?

They say the New Swine Inspection System rules undermine pork safety inspection in slaughter plants. The rules, they say, are a "draconian reversal to the swine slaughter inspection system that has existed in the United States since 1906." The rules turn over control to companies without any minimum training requirements for employees who inspect the carcasses. Further, prior limits on slaughter-line speeds were lifted with the rule change.

“It’s easy to read between the lines with these new rules: the USDA is letting the wolf guard the hog-house," said Zach Corrigan, senior staff attorney, Food & Water Watch. "Food safety is one of the most important protections in our country and gifting the slaughter industry self-regulation powers will mean pork eaters in this country will be facing higher threats of disease.”

“Reducing the number of trained federal inspectors and increasing line speeds is a recipe for disaster,” said Ryan Talbott, staff attorney for Center for Food Safety. “USDA has an obligation to protect the health and welfare of consumers. USDA cannot do that when it takes a back seat and lets the slaughter plants largely regulate themselves.”

Have other lawsuits been filed against the rule changes?

Yes. This is the fourth action challenging the New Swine Inspection System rules. Food & Water Watch has filed a separate lawsuit alleging the agency's violated the Freedom of Information Act. The 69-page complaint details how the agency has delegated inspection activities to the slaughter companies and how this will harm public health.

Two other groups have challenged the rules because of the harm posed to plant employees and to the animals.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, together with Public Citizen and UFCW Locals 663, 440 and 2 filed a federal lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota on Oct. 7, 2019, seeking to stop the rule. The unions represent workers in Minnesota, Iowa and Kansas.

On Dec. 18, 2019, eight animal rights organizations filed a lawsuit against USDA's decision to eliminate slaughter speed limits at pork slaughterhouses. The organizations filing suit: Compassion over Killing, Farm Sanctuary, Animal Equality, Animal Legal Defense Fund, Center for Biological Diversity, Humane Society of the United States, Mercy for Animals and North Carolina Farmed Animal Save.

What are others saying about the rule change?

Food Safety and Inspection Service inspectors told NBC News that "unsafe" pork is likely making it to consumers under the rule change.

"The consumer's being duped," Food Safety and Inspection Service inspector Jill Mauer told NBC News. "They believe that it actually is getting federally inspected when there's no one there to even watch or do anything about anything."

The North American Meat Institute supports the rule change.

"After more than 15 years of experience with the successful pilot program, NSIS, a voluntary system, still requires USDA inspectors to inspect every animal before harvest and every carcass after harvest to ensure the product is wholesome and USDA always has the authority to affect an establishment's linespeed," institute vice president of communications Sarah Little told NBC News.

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