Ep. 71: Who's Watching the Hogs?

Photo: Gerry Broome / AP

Photo: Gerry Broome / AP

Last month, the USDA quietly issued a new rule changing meat inspection standards for pork. Not only does the new rule mean slaughterhouses can run their processing lines as fast as they want, it also changes who does the inspecting, giving the pork producers themselves a bigger role in the process.

Our guest in this episode is Tom Philpott, food and agriculture reporter for Mother Jones. He talks about what the changes could mean for the safety of food and workers.

Philpott says that it’s important to realize the scale of the operation in question here. And the speed — every 3 seconds, on average, a 250-pound hog is sent down the processing line.

“Just picture the hog being stunned and then this carcass going down the line and workers immediately setting to cut it up at this rate; pull the guts out and start breaking it down,” he says. “These are facilities that are full of lots and lots of blood and guts and enormous animals being slaughtered.”

The changes represent the first updates to hog slaughterhouse inspection procedures in more than 50 years. Proponents says they will bring much-needed modernization and innovation to the industry. Critics say it’s a dangerous move toward privatization and decreased food safety. 

The faster speeds have already been piloted in five facilities. A few years ago, a secret video was filmed inside one of them, a slaughterhouse in Minnesota that supplies Hormel. 

The video was recorded by the animal rights organization, Compassion Over Killing. It shows pigs with open wounds being sent down the slaughter line. Some are covered in feces. And some are still alive. 

Philpott says that the data from the five facilities that were part of the pilot aren’t promising. The Office of the Inspector General looked at the slaughterhouses with the most food safety and animal welfare violations between 2008 and 2011. Three of these pilot facilities were among the top ten violators. 

“So this program that was supposed to show that the new system would improve food safety and not damage animal welfare did anything but,” Philpott says. 

In 2015, a handful of USDA whistleblowers working as inspectors in these pilot facilities came froward and issued affidavits outlining the conditions they were seeing. 

“This program has not had a great track record during its pilot and now it's being made general,” Philpott says. “All [616] slaughter facilities can now adopt it.”

The rules changes are moving forward under President Trump's USDA. But Philpott points out that the agency has wanted to do this for a long time. So is this specifically a Trump thing or something that was going to happen no matter who was in charge? Philpott says it’s a little bit of both. 

It's just sort of the culture of deregulation that's been upon us for a while that President Trump is just taking and running with as fast as he can,” Philpott says. “And part of it is this specific Trumpian hostility to anything that might inconvenience industry.”

>>Listen to the entire episode below or wherever you get your podcasts.