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How Safe is That Burger? A Look at Inspections of the Meat Industry

May 12, 2022

The meat industry is regulated by the federal government but how it is regulated affects the food you eat.

Most people expect that the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is ensuring the safety of the meat on their dinner plates, but that's not exactly the case. How is the meat industry regulated and inspected? The mission of the FSIS is to “ensure that the nation’s commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged.” The passage of the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906 required the sanitary processing of farmed animals and improved many aspects of meat packaging. Although there are many protective measures in place, the meat industry has found ways of limiting oversight.

An important aspect of the production process is the line speed that the slaughterhouse operates under. The line speed denotes the maximum number of animals a slaughterhouse is allowed to kill per minute. Line speeds are regulated by the FSIS, which only slows down the line when an inspector notices an abnormality with an animal carcass. The industry values faster and faster line speeds to be able to produce more finished products in less time. Meat lobbyists, to increase profits, have asked the federal government to increase the maximum speed. Many workers’ rights groups have argued that increased line speeds require workers to reduce the amount of time they put into ensuring the quality of the meat and puts them in the dangerous position of having to work too fast. Line speed waivers are another way that the industry attempts to get around regulations. Instead of changing the entire regulation, exceptions are made for individual plants. Recently, there has been an influx of waivers approved by the USDA to increase certain poultry facilities from 140 birds per minute to 175. President Biden has reversed a proposed rule change that would increase the line speed to 175 for all plants, but the waivers granted previously remain in place. The industry continues to push for faster speeds despite health and safety concerns.

There are additional problems regarding who is in charge of inspection responsibilities. Within federal and state-inspected slaughterhouses, an inspector must be present whenever slaughter operations are being conducted. Government workers are supposed to investigate animal carcasses for infection or sickness before allowing the meat to be sold to the public. They also issue violations in regards to sanitation or activities that do not follow the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. The beef industry has recently been arguing for inspections to first be done by private employees, which would decrease the number of inspectors needed. These initial inspections would allow for employees to cut off and discard parts of an animal that could indicate disease or infection. However, cutting off warning signs of disease during the first inspection could compromise the later governmental inspection. This would ultimately allow potentially contaminated meat to enter the food supply. Recently, the Food and Water Watch and the Center for Food and Safety legally challenged the New Swine Inspection System put out by the USDA. The program would allow inspections to be done primarily by untrained plant employees, which the groups argue has led to higher levels of contamination. Along with delegating responsibilities from officials to plant employees, there have also been changes in the number of inspectors at the facilities. Typically, the slaughter line is checked by four inspectors; however, that changed with the New Poultry Inspection Service, also launched by the USDA, which lowered the number of inspectors to one. The industry consistently seeks to influence the extent to which its facilities are managed.

Disease prevention is the main focus of inspections but even that has had limited success. Salmonella has been a major problem within the chicken industry. When an outbreak occurs, the USDA is effectively powerless since it can only request that the company recall its products on a voluntary basis and cannot compel them to do so. In order to even request the recall, there is a high burden of proof on the USDA to find a sick patient with an unopened package of chicken that later tests positive for Salmonella. 

The beef industry also has problems, specifically with the pathogen E. coli. There are many points throughout the slaughter process during which E. coli could be transferred into the final product. While the USDA requires E. coli testing of the animal carcass after slaughter, there are no regulatory standards for an acceptable presence of E. coli. The USDA allows beef grinders to create individual safety plans to better identify the pathogen and also recommends, but does not require, testing products before grinding. Certain facilities will only test for E. coli after grinding has occurred. However, many large slaughterhouses “will sell only to grinders who agree not to test their shipments for E. coli.” Because not all meat can be tested for E. coli, there is no guarantee that products are safe and free of pathogens.

The meat industry provides millions of consumers with food everyday but does not take adequate responsibility for making sure that meat is safe.

Jill O’Keeffe is a college intern with FFAC studying sociology, psychology, and philosophy at the University of San Diego.