The Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has published a final rule that will eliminate requirements for slaughterhouses to clean hog carcasses prior to cutting them open, a move critics say opens the door to more contamination.
The agency claimed that the measures are “unnecessary” and that “more efficient” procedures will adequately ensure food safety. Consumer advocates, however, point out that the agency has not shared any data to support its claim that more contamination will not accompany the greater “efficiency.” Advocates also question the move to deregulate when the agency has yet to replace the Salmonella performance standards for pork that it abandoned in 2011.
Without an up-to-date performance standard, and the associated testing to measure compliance with the standard, the agency cannot say how the rule change will affect food safety, according to consumer advocates.
Ten percent of Salmonella illnesses
“Pork alone now causes over ten percent of Salmonella illnesses each year in the United States,” said Thomas Gremillion, Director of Food Policy at the Consumer Federation of America, citing a recent government analysis. “Yet USDA is not keeping track of which slaughterhouses are doing a good job at keeping Salmonella levels down, and which ones are utterly failing. The agency does not seem to have any basis for determining whether this policy leads to greater levels of pathogen contamination, and as a result, more foodborne illness.”
FSIS justified its elimination of the carcass cleaning requirements in part by pointing to the experience of five slaughterhouses that were granted waivers to employ alternative procedures. In comments on the proposed rule, however, the Safe Food Coalition pointed out that the agency had not explained how it evaluated the performance of those slaughterhouses, all of which are operated by one corporation.
Procedures not documented
They also pointed out that the proposed rule did not describe any of the “alternative procedures” used by the establishments with waivers, or explain why other slaughterhouses, operated by other companies, would be likely to employ them. The final rule dismisses those concerns, saying only that “[i]nformation from establishments that operated under waivers from this specific regulation shows that they operated without jeopardizing food safety.”
In part because of Salmonella, and also due to pathogens like Staphylococcus aureus, Clostridium perfringens, and Yersinia, foodborne illness associated with pork has taken an increasing toll on public health in recent years.
“In 2015, pork outbreaks increased by 73% when compared to the 3 previous years,” said Pat Buck, Executive Director of the Center for Foodborne Illness, Research & Prevention citing a recent academic study. “Given this level of increase in pork-related outbreaks, FSIS needs to more fully justify actions that it takes to remove consumer protections on pork production.”