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.
Photo credit: iStockphoto
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