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What Could Go Wrong

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Good ol’ regulatory capture: Department of Agriculture edition from Tom Philpott:

Their comments focus on three Hormel-associated plants, which are among just five hog facilities enrolled in a pilot inspection program run by the USDA. In the regular oversight system, USDA-employed inspectors are stationed along the kill line, charged with ensuring that conditions are as sanitary as possible and that no tainted meat ends up being packed for consumption. In the pilot program, known as HIMP (short for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points-based Inspection Models Project), company employees take over inspection duties, relegating USDA inspectors to an oversight role on the sidelines.

What’s more, the HIMP plants get to speed up the kill line—from the current rate of 1,100 hogs per hour to 1,300 hogs per hour, a jump of nearly 20 percent. The five plants rolled out the new inspection system around 2002, USDA spokesperson Aaron Lavallee said. That’s when Murano, now on the Hormel board of directors, ran the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. If the privatization-plus-speed-up formula sounds familiar, it’s because the USDA ran a similar experimental program for chicken slaughter for years. After much pushback by workplace and food safety advocates and media attention (including from me), the USDA decided not to let poultry companies speed up the kill line when it opened the new system to all chicken slaughterhouses last year (though it did greenlight turkey facilities to speed up the line from 51 to 55 birds per minute).

All four affidavits offer blistering critiques of the hog version of the pilot program. Three themes run through them: 1) company inspectors are poorly trained and prepared for the task of overseeing a fast-moving kill line involving large carcasses; 2) company-employed and USDA inspectors alike face pressure from the company not to perform their jobs rigorously; and 3) lots of unappetizing stuff is getting through as the result of 1) and 2).

Good times. My only problem with Philpott’s piece is how much it underplays the effect of the speedup on workplace safety. It’s referenced in passing, but like so much when it comes to the food industry, consumers’ interests are privileged above that of workers, when in fact the two are so interconnected that any reasonable analysis can not really separate them. The meat industry is already incredibly dangerous labor and speed-ups always make labor more dangerous, while also of course making inspections less rigorous and with greater likelihood of tainted meat getting to the consumer. Both issues are equally important.

Really, it’s impossible to see what could go wrong with the meat industry regulating itself. That is, if you like killing workers.

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