USDA Making Hog Slaughterhouse Jobs More Efficient—And Less Safe

A new rule proposed by the USDA to increase line speeds and reduce government inspections at U.S. hog slaughterhouses will likely cause increased workplace injuries and higher risk of foodborne illness.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is proposing a rule to make hog slaughterhouse operations faster, more efficient, and less dependent on government inspections. For many, though, increased speed is not a good thing. In fact, it’s a major hazard to employees and consumers.

The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH) is a vocal opponent of the rule, saying it is not safe and is potentially based off incorrect or skewed data. Slaughterhouse employees are already at high risk of occupational injuries from machinery and foodborne illnesses. In fact, meatpacking workers experience a higher rate of occupational illness that is fifteen times higher than workers nationwide.

“Working in a slaughterhouse is a difficult, dangerous job,” said Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of National COSH. “Speeding up production lines will make these jobs even more difficult and more dangerous. Workers will be at a greater risk of getting sick, injured – or killed.”

The data used in the rulemaking process is currently being investigated. The USDA inspector general is looking into whether the agency used flawed data and concealed information from the public during rulemaking process. The investigation is expected to conclude at the end of the 2019 year.

“There is no reason – other than the demands of industry – to rush forward with a new, potentially dangerous rollback of essential safety regulations.” said Martinez. “We don’t even know yet if this rule is based on solid scientific evidence. There is every reason to proceed deliberately when the health and well-being of so many workers and consumers is at stake.”

The proposed USDA rule will remove line speed limits from plants that are projected to account for more than 90 percent of the nation’s pork production. On average, pork producers slaughter an average of 1,100 hogs per hour.

While the rule will affect slaughterhouse employees, it will also affect consumers by reducing the number of safety inspections. By reducing government inspection visits, the rule will allow some firms to use their own employees to inspect for fecal matter and other contaminants on pork processing lines. Various reports have suggested the inherent issues and problems associated with “self-inspection”—the USDA Office of Inspector General even has its own report.

Despite the proposed USDA rule, pork processing workers still have a right, under the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Act, to a workplace free of preventable hazards. The fate of this rule, and the hog slaughterhouse industry, is a subject to change depending on the approval of this rule.

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