The USDA has admitted that its own pig slaughterhouse inspectors are not doing their jobs properly, and “as a result, there is reduced assurance of…inspectors effectively identifying pork that should not enter the food supply.”
The May 9th report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of the Inspector General concluded that slaughterhouses are free to run amok and are selling tainted meat to consumers because inspectors are not enforcing the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA). Inspectors and slaughterhouses are also ignoring the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA), an anti-cruelty law, leading to animal deaths more horrific than usual.
The lax inspectors work for the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), an arm of the USDA. The report describes FSIS as “the public health agency…responsible for ensuring that the nation’s commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged.” When FSIS employees don’t do their jobs thoroughly and conscientiously, people can die from food poisoning.
The problem is huge. There are 8,600 FSIS inspectors for 6,300 slaughter and processing plants, or an average of only 1.4 inspectors — who are expected to visually and manually inspect every animal — per facility. In one year the 616 slaughter and processing plants that handle pigs killed over 110 million animals.
The Federal Meat Inspection Act
The FMIA requires inspectors to check pigs both before and after slaughter for signs of disease. The report characterizes these inspections as “one of FSIS’ primary means of removing diseased animals from the meat supply.” If those inspections are not performed correctly, or at all, diseased pork is more likely to make it all the way to consumers’ plates. This is a real threat: each year tens of millions of people contract food poisoning, hundreds of thousands of them must go to the hospital for treatment, and thousands of them die.
The Humane Method of Slaughter Act
The HMSA requires humane handling and slaughter of pigs (and other animals) “to prevent…needless suffering.” The report describes FSIS inspectors’ duties under the HMSA:
Inspectors’ duties include: ensuring that there are adequate measures in case of inclement weather, observing truck unloading, checking water and feed availability, observing handling during ante-mortem inspection, observing handling of suspect and disabled livestock, observing electric prod use, monitoring for slips and falls, checking stunning effectiveness, and checking for conscious animals hanging on the slaughter rail.
The “slaughter rail” is where pigs are suspended (by one ankle) after they are stunned so their blood will drain out when their throats are cut. Hanging all of a factory-farmed pig’s weight from one ankle can shear the skin down to the bone — just one more pain to add to the terror of pigs who are conscious on the slaughter rail.
Inspectors who find legal violations are empowered to penalize the guilty company. They “have numerous options ranging in severity from issuing a citation to suspending [i.e. closing] the plant.”
The USDA reported that audits going back at least as far as 2004 uncovered serious gaps and laxity in HMSA and FMIA enforcement. One example was a 2012 audit of egg inspection:
When FSIS identified egregious violations or repeat violators, it did not initiate progressively stronger enforcement actions. The agency’s lenient enforcement policy did not deter serious violations or repeat violators, and the strongest enforcement actions that FSIS initiated were warning letters.
This year’s report demonstrates that the previous audits did not make inspectors do their jobs better, leading to the unpleasant suspicion that this report won’t shake up FSIS either.
Food Safety Enforcement
Inspectors’ enforcement efforts, such as they are, aren’t stopping swine slaughterhouses from repeatedly violating food safety laws. The problem, according to the OIG, is that FSIS inspectors do not
- “take progressively stronger enforcement action against repeat violators”
- “distinguish between serious violations and minor infractions”
- receive “sufficient guidance on what actions to take in specific circumstances”
Some corroborating evidence: 44,128 noncompliance records that inspectors issued to 616 plants led to the suspension of only 28 plants over four years, despite repeated egregious violations at some facilities like “fecal matter on previously cleaned carcasses.” Some of those suspensions were as short as one day.
Many repeat-offender facilities that richly deserved suspension got off with slaps on the wrist.
- One South Carolina plant’s violations included feces on a hog’s corpse after it was cleaned and all contaminated parts should have been removed, and “‘black colored liquid substance’ on processed meat.” The plant was never suspended, even after repeating these violations 202 times.
- A Nebraska plant’s repeated violations included “fecal material which was yellow and fibrous” on the corpse. There may have been some vomiting, but there was no suspension. (By the way, imagine how miserably sick this pig must have been to produce that stuff.)
- An Illinois plant’s repeat violations included both feces and “running abscesses” on the dead bodies. No suspension.
FSIS inspectors are responsible for the corpse’s innards as well as its appearance on the outside. But some inspectors just aren’t looking inside, even when they know OIG auditors are watching them. They may be missing “parasites, inflammation, swelling, or masses that might indicate disease.”
Inspectors are neglecting pigs’ welfare as much as food safety.
As with the FMIA, inspectors did not adequately enforce the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. Their enforcement decisions were subjective, inconsistent and lenient, allowing slaughter plants to continue breaking the law without consequence.
What inspectors are supposed to do is immediately suspend facilities that commit “egregious” violations, meaning they caused severe harm to animals. What the inspectors actually did often was to take no action at all. Inspectors did nothing about these legal violations:
- In a California slaughterhouse, after being shot in the head with a stun gun, a pig regained consciousness while hanging upside-down from the slaughter rail. This is a direct violation of HMSA and grounds for suspension, but the inspector took no action — not even a slap on the wrist.
- In a Minnesota plant that used a carbon dioxide chamber to render pigs unconscious, a pig came out of the chamber alert but weak and not moving. Employees left the pig to suffer for more than a minute and a half before they shot him or her with a stun gun. No enforcement action.
Auditors witnessed these violations though they spent no more than 30 minutes watching the stunning process in each facility. Extrapolation suggests that similar violations occur regularly at many plants and that inspectors take no enforcement action, and the evidence bears that out:
- Employees at an Indiana plant shot a pig in the head twice with different stun guns, then administered a shock with an electric stunner before the animal lost consciousness. Later a pig regained consciousness on the slaughter rail at the same place. No suspension.
- In a Pennsylvania facility a pig regained consciousness on the slaughter rail after his or her throat was cut. The animal was then dunked in scalding water. Employees did not stun the pig again before trying to cut the conscious animal’s throat properly. No suspension.
- An employee at a Minnesota plant “forcefully hit a hog in the head and face with a paddle.” Clearly egregious; no suspension.
Getting Inspectors to Do Their Jobs
The USDA Inspector General’s office made recommendations in the report intended to address each of the problems it documented. FSIS responded with its own proposals for fixing the problems. OIG accepted every one of FSIS’s proposals.
Because previous audits did not made things better I hold out little hope that this report will dramatically reform FSIS. My recommendation, like that of Bruce Friedrich in the Huffington Post, is to stop eating meat. Unless you don’t mind feces dressing on your bacon.
Photo credit: iStockphoto