Privatizing and deregulating swine slaughter could put consumers at greater risk of foodborne illness, says CSPI

Pig facing camera, standing in mud

Privatizing and deregulating swine slaughter could put consumers at increased risk of foodborne illness, according to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Today the organization urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture to withdraw a proposed rule ostensibly aimed at modernizing the process, and to replace it with a new proposal that prioritizes food safety.

The proposed swine slaughter rule would shift inspection duties from USDA inspectors to slaughter establishment employees and would eliminate national testing requirements for Salmonella and generic E. coli. The proposed rule also would lift caps on the speeds with which pigs are processed, currently capped at an already-rapid clip of 1,106 head per hour.

About half a million people get sick and 82 die each year after eating contaminated pork, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“When you tell consumers that slaughter inspection is being ‘modernized,’ they expect to see a substantial food safety benefit,” says CSPI deputy director of regulatory affairs Sarah Sorscher. “But this proposal may actually increase food safety risks.”

When the Obama administration implemented a similar program, the 2014 New Poultry Inspection System, it maintained a maximum line speed and kept in place updated microbial performance standards. But even with those additional safeguards, the food-safety impact of that program has been unclear.

CSPI says that the USDA should not take further steps to “modernize” swine inspection until it has updated its microbial performance standard for pork, a core measure needed to verify that slaughterhouses are successful in keeping down levels of disease-causing bacteria.

“With past efforts to modernize, the approach has been ‘trust but verify,’” says Sorscher. “Now the administration is taking away the verification step and is just saying ‘trust.’”

CSPI also says that the USDA should maintain testing requirements for E. coli, a measure of fecal contamination, and cap line speeds at or below the current maximum. The group also recommends that the agency take steps to enhance food safety by controlling disease risks before animals arrive for slaughter.

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