Our View

If you buy food, you are probably aware of serious food safety scares in recent years; recent action by the U.S. Department of Agriculture is about to make food safety problems more likely.

Sure, diagnostic tools are better, resulting in more food safety reports that can make it feel as if there are more food scares. Doctors can more easily and quickly determine that a surge of people getting sick is an outbreak of foodborne illness rather than just a bug. Still, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 1 in 6 people each year get sick because of what they have eaten.

Rates of illness because of food have remained relatively steady for a number of years despite perceptions, in large part because of food safety measures, rapid identification of outbreaks and quick recalls of contaminated products. Now the federal government has finalized a rule to reduce food safety protections in the processing of pork and turn much of the policing of the industry over to the producers themselves — because we all know how well that works. Anyone remember planes falling out of the sky?

The rule change will remove limits on the speed of production lines. The change also reduces the number of government food safety inspectors in pork plants by 40%, removing them from production lines and largely eliminating USDA inspections in favor of a smaller number of factory employees “sorting” the meat — a job for which no special training will be required. The pork industry is happy, workers’ safety groups are troubled and food safety advocates are outraged.

But how should consumers feel? Sickened — metaphorically now, but also physically as the rules take effect. Because there is no doubt that the change will make our food less safe according to the government’s own data. Also, let’s not forget the terrible history of meatpacking plants when it comes to food safety. The unsafe and filthy conditions in slaughterhouses exposed in Upton Sinclair’s book “The Jungle” are what brought about our food inspection system in the first place.

The USDA ran a pilot program on the changes in five slaughterhouses, but failed to submit the results for peer review before making the rules change. The administration apparently decided in part on efficiency versus risk. Data from the pilot project was analyzed by various food safety groups. They found, unsurprisingly, that faster line speeds resulted in more mistakes. Fewer inspectors with less time to examine the pork meant significantly more contaminated product got through. That will translate into more people getting sick. Additionally, the changes will hurt food industry workers; increases in line speed are closely connected to workplace injuries and work-related illnesses.

We urge you to contact your federal lawmakers and tell them to work to reverse the change.

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