The Washington Post reports that the Trump administration plans to slash the number of federal inspectors in the nation's pork-processing plants by about 40 percent. The change, which could take place next month, is part of the Republican press to deregulate industry—including removing regulations previously put in place for public safety reasons.
The removed federal inspectors would be replaced by ... actually, by nothing.
Under the proposed new inspection system, the responsibility for identifying diseased and contaminated pork would be shared with plant employees, whose training would be at the discretion of plant owners. There would be no limits on slaughter-line speeds.
The "responsibility" for keeping contaminated meat out of the plant would be transferred to industry employees, but there are no hard requirements for how, or if, those workers will be trained to identify specific diseases or contaminants. There would similarly be no requirement that the plant operate at a speed that would even allow for plausible visual inspections, and no requirement that plants publicly disclose the results of their own disease testing, a move that could delay identification of new outbreaks.
Tests for salmonella and E. coli, two of the most common causes of serious food-borne illness, will seemingly no longer be required at all.
If this sounds to you like a recipe for disaster, you are in good company. The USDA's chief veterinarian refused to approve the proposed changes, citing the potential for catastrophic disease outbreaks if less-trained plant workers failed to identify one of the highly contagious diseases that USDA's veterinarians would otherwise have caught. But he has since left the department, and Team Trump forced the issue through soon after he departed. And though years of prior USDA experiments with the new protocol have not borne out lofty industry promises of continued safety, that does not seem to have deterred administration attempts to push forward.
These moves are much in keeping with the Republican push to allow each American industry to "self-regulate" in good faith rather than be held to federally specified worker and public safety requirements. It is the same re-imagining of the federal role that saw the Federal Aviation Administration pass off certification of airliner safety to the airline manufacturers, a move currently being probed as a possible factor in the malfunctions and deadly crashes of two Boeing 737 MAX commercial jets. If there is any glimmer of good news here, it is that pigs can’t fly.
It also seems that these new changes will, as with many of these deregulation efforts, be of advantage primarily to the very largest mega-corporations. The Post reports that the Trump administration intends to roll out the new deregulated program to 40 plants, out of the nation's roughly 600, but that those 40 plants will collectively "produce 90 percent of the pork produced in the United States."
It is self-evident that a program that reduces testing for salmonella, E. coli, hoof-and-mouth, and other diseases will result in increases of each. That has been the whole point of USDA regulations, after all: They were put in place to ensure the quality of the U.S. food supply or to stifle highly contagious livestock diseases before they could spread further, and each regulation came about due to previous incidents of (sometimes widespread) disease or contamination.
After the first large new outbreak happens, a new administration will likely re-tighten those same controls, returning to something much like the original system. But it will only be after something goes wrong. Food safety advocates and industry watchers warn that the "something goes wrong" part, if it results in a new epidemic, could mean human deaths, catastrophic industry losses, or both. For consumers, the only recourse would appear to be not buying the stuff.