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Packing capacity skimming by National Pork Board

'Sweet and sour' on pork inspection

Plans to move pork inspection to a new model is causing quite a back and forth within the nation's capitol.

Seems we have a real cat fight going on in Washington, D.C., and it involves three groups.

It was started by the Washington Post, followed by an in-your-face response from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS). Then the Food Safety Coalition jumped on the pile and blasted FSIS for its response.

I actually got phone calls from reporters asking if I thought the unusual touchiness of the FSIS response had the Deputy Undersecretary for Food Safety, Dr. Mindy Brashear’s, fingerprints all over it. You remember her, the lady who was nominated a year ago by President Donald Trump to be just the fifth undersecretary for food safety at USDA but is still waiting for Senate approval, hence the appointment as the deputy under?

Who could blame her for being a bit edgy, but knowing FSIS I do not think they change their tactics and risk their bureaucratic lives for a deputy who will be in town for less than two years.

Nope, I think the FSIS Office of Congressional & Public Affairs just got tired of the same old rhetoric that has been going on about modernization of the meat and poultry inspection system for years.

The Post story ran April 3, and FSIS maintains the Post simply decided to “reprint the talking points of special interest groups.” And they did; nothing new at all in the story.

The Post story is about FSIS’s stated plans to move pork inspection forward to the HIMP (HACCP Inspection Models Project) model. Five pork plants have been operating under this system for over 20 years.

FSIS announced Jan. 19, 2018, that it was posting the proposed regulations for the New Swine Inspection System (NSIS) in the Federal Register for public comment

During the Obama Administration, FSIS moved forward with the New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS).

NSIS is strikingly similar to the NPIS. Yet many of the Post’s statements start out with “The Trump Administration plans to shift…” making this a Republican pro-industry issue. HIMP was started during the Clinton Administration.

In both systems, plant employees will do quality checks for bruises, blemishes, fractures, etc. FSIS will still inspect each carcass for food safety issues, such as fecal contamination or diseased animals.

But remember these are market hogs only, all basically young, healthy and uniformly sized animals.

What caused me to write a blog on this cat fight are two statements by the Post so blatantly erroneous that they cannot be ignored. FSIS found many more and you can read that reply on the FSIS web page.

  1. The Post states that the new inspection system will be “cutting the number of federal inspectors by about 40% and replacing them with plant employees.”

FSIS says in their statement that “the agency would require 147 fewer positions for swine slaughter inspection.” I know that the Agency has about 6,500 inspectors not counting the public health veterinarians. So, 147 from 6,500 is a long way from 40%.

  1. The Post quotes Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) as saying that “The safety of tens of thousands of workers in pork processing plants should be USDA’s priority, and right now it clearly isn’t.”

Last time I checked, FSIS’s number one priority, as established by Durbin and the other 99 Senators, was food safety, and OSHA was the federal agency with statutory and regulatory authority to enforce workplace safety and health.

But, of course, this is the same senator who has called Social Security an “entitlement,” even though the government has taken money out of my paychecks since my first job for safe keeping for my retirement.

Then the Food Safety Coalition piled on, stating that the USDA statement in “its timing, with Dr. Mindy Brashears having recently assumed her new position as the USDA deputy under secretary for food safety, calls into question the agency leadership’s commitment to a good faith policy debate. Consumers cannot put their trust in a food safety regulatory agency that fails to engage openly and honestly with legitimate public criticism.”

Remember, this HIMP program was initiated 20 years ago, and FSIS announced its plans to expand 15 months ago. If the coalition wants an open and honest discussion, why has it not engaged in one before blasting FSIS publicly?

I met with the coalition monthly when I was the undersecretary and we were very cordial and got along. Their recent statement, especially pointing the finger directly at Brashears, seriously threatens the possibility of open, cordial debates and discussions down the road.

By the way, there are 612 swine slaughter facilities and FSIS estimates 40 will change to the NSIS, but those 40 are the ones that kill the great majority of market hogs every year.

And one last disclosure, to be “open and honest”: FSIS stated that, “Despite spending countless hours responding to the Post and providing clarification about the proposed rule, the Post chose to ignore the information and went with an already formed opinion and headline.”

FSIS went on to say: “Shame on you, Washington Post. This story earns you at least four Pinocchios.”

Okay, maybe that is a little over the top for FSIS. But it brought a smile to my face.

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