There is still time to stop an imminent program that would allow facilities to increase slaughter speeds, while reducing the number of trained government inspectors.
If you care about animal welfare or food safety, this news will concern you: the nationwide expansion of a risky US Department of Agriculture (USDA) high-speed slaughter program is imminent. But the good news is there is still time to stop it.
The USDA is now accepting public comments on its proposed rule that it euphemistically dubbed the "Modernization of Swine Slaughter Inspection". As a former undercover investigator who worked inside a pig slaughterhouse operating under the pilot project that was, at the time, called HIMP, I've seen firsthand the hazardous and cruel nature of this controversial program and can say with certainty that it's anything but "modern".
This expanded program, formally called the New Swine Slaughter Inspection System (NSIS), would allow facilities to increase slaughter speeds, while reducing the number of trained government inspectors on the lines. In other words, the responsibility of food safety oversight is largely shifted into the hands of slaughter plant employees. Combine this with faster speeds on the kill floor and the result is problems that can – and do – go unnoticed.
For nearly six months, I worked undercover inside Quality Pork Processors (QPP), no typical pig slaughterhouse. An exclusive Hormel Foods supplier, QPP kills about 1,300 pigs every hour operating under the high-speed pilot program. That's more than 21 pigs per minute, making QPP one of the fastest pig-killing facilities in the nation.
QPP has widely been considered a model for the USDA's nationwide expansion of the pilot program through NSIS, but when no one thought the public or USDA was watching, behind the slaughterhouse's closed doors, I documented pig carcasses covered in feces and abscesses being processed for human consumption, and workers – under intense pressure to keep up with high line speeds – beating, dragging, and electrically prodding pigs to make them move faster.
NSIS may also allow higher numbers of sick and injured pigs too weak even to stand (known as "downers") to be slaughtered for food. As documented on my hidden camera, these animals endured particularly horrific abuses as they were forced to the kill floor in a desperate attempt to keep the slaughter lines moving as fast as possible.
I even documented a supervisor sleeping on the job when he was in charge of overseeing the stunning process to ensure pigs were effectively rendered unconscious before their throats were slit.
One QPP employee even said to me on camera, "If the USDA is around, they could shut us down."
That, in a nutshell, is the underlying problem with this initiative: it's a program that largely allows the slaughterhouse to police itself.
Though I've witnessed these horrors firsthand, I'm far from the only one warning of the dangers of NSIS. USDA whistleblowers, labor unions, and even members of Congress have expressed their objections to this program.
A 2013 report by the USDA's own Office of the Inspector General stated that "since FSIS did not provide adequate oversight, HIMP plants may have a higher potential for food safety risks", concluding that this "program has shown no measurable improvement to the inspection process".
In 2016, a letter from 60 members of Congress to the USDA stated "the available evidence suggests the hog HIMP will undermine food safety", and that "rapid line speeds present some of the greatest risks of inhumane treatment as workers are often pressured to take violent shortcuts to keep up." The letter further states: "We are concerned that these new rules are being pushed by the industry to increase profits at the expense of public health."
More than a quarter of a million people have signed a petition against the pilot program's expansion through NSIS, and earlier this month, a coalition of 35 animal, worker, environmental, and consumer protection organizations also urged the USDA to drop the proposal.
At a time when consumers are rightfully demanding more transparency in the food industry, the USDA's so-called "Modernization" program is a big step backward.
Halting the expansion of the dangerous pilot program and bringing it to an immediate end is the only conscientious and compassionate choice for the USDA, a federal agency that has the opportunity, and the responsibility, to put animals, consumers, and workers above powerful pork industry interests.
To sum it all up in the words of a USDA whistleblower who worked as an inspector at QPP: "It's no longer meaningful for consumers to see that mark indicating that their product has been USDA-inspected."
Scott David is a former undercover investigator and current investigations associate at Compassion Over Killing, a national animal protection organization based in Washington DC.