Slaughterhouses in the United States are allowed to kill more than 1,000 pigs per hour under current U.S. Department of Agriculture rules. Inside these facilities, employees handling the animals work under immense stress at breakneck speeds, performing repetitive motions in cold, slippery conditions, using dangerous equipment.
Now, as if these existing conditions for both the animals and workers weren’t bad enough, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is getting ready to remove slaughter line speed limits at pig slaughterhouses altogether, which would allow these facilities to actually increase the rate at which the animals are killed. The proposal would also partially privatize food safety inspections without providing funding or any requirements for training plant workers. This is a disastrous plan that does not deserve further consideration.
Existing line speed regulations already make slaughter facilities among the most dangerous and difficult places to work in America. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, meatpacking workers experience injury rates nearly 2.5 times higher and an illness rate almost 17 times higher than the average for all industries. Forcing workers to process the animals faster will only exacerbate these problems, while increasing the risk of contaminated pork being introduced into the U.S. food supply.
Faster line speeds would also inevitably lead to more frequent inhumane incidents, such as pigs being inadequately stunned and therefore remaining conscious during slaughter — a violation of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. The HSUS works closely with farmers and ranchers across the country who understand the need for humane handling of animals during the slaughter process. These producers uniformly oppose the line-speed rule change as a step backward, especially coming at a time when consumers are more concerned than ever with how their food is produced and how animals raised for food are treated.
The USDA proposal removes many trained, federal inspectors at slaughter plants, and instead turns the inspections over to company employees, who are under enormous pressure and vulnerable to firing if they flag problems. In what can only be described as ridiculous spin, the USDA says that this will free up time for federal inspectors to ensure that the animals are being handled humanely. If the USDA is truly looking for ways to make the pig slaughter process more humane, it ought to start with prohibiting the slaughter of “downed” pigs – animals who are too injured or too sick or weak to stand and walk. This would be similar to what the agency has already done for downed calves and cows. It would remove an incentive to abuse weak, sick, and injured animals to force them onto trucks and into slaughter lines.
The current USDA proposal is based on a pilot program begun in 1997, which allowed five hog slaughter facilities to operate at higher speeds with a reduced number of federal inspectors. But that program has already been criticized for its shortcomings by the Office of Inspector General, which said it “repeatedly failed to stop the production of contaminated meat,” and failed to even properly assess whether this new idea resulted in measurable food safety improvements.
Earlier this week Food and Water Watch revealed that a new, “state of the art” hog slaughter facility in Coldwater, Michigan, where the agency presumably wanted to demonstrate its new proposal, has already been cited for repeated food safety failures in the six months it has been operating. A plant employee tasked with food safety inspection failed to identify a dead hog in the holding pen prior to slaughter – never mind spotting diseases that can be harder to recognize.
The USDA’s proposal to remove limits on line speeds at pig slaughterhouses is clearly a bad idea that should never be tolerated in a nation with a professed commitment to food safety and the humane treatment of animals in slaughter. You can help us put a stop to this unworthy proposal by telling the agency that you oppose its plan to partially privatize food safety inspection and endanger the welfare of plant workers and animals in the process. We only have until May 2 to submit comments to the agency, so please act soon.
Here’s a sample message you can use or adapt: “I am opposed to the USDA’s plan to privatize food safety inspection and allow pork producers to operate faster than they already do. These changes put endangered and overwhelmed workers at additional risk of severe injury, increase the chance of contaminated pork making it into the food supply, and will worsen the inhumane handling of pigs.”