The U.S. Department of Agriculture failed to evaluate the accuracy of worker-safety data it used to support a new hog inspection system that allows processing plants to run at faster speeds, the Office of Inspector General has said.
The 36-page report, which was released Wednesday, also found that the USDA was not transparent with the raw data used in its safety analysis, making it difficult for outside experts to evaluate the agency's conclusions.
The new system, optional for meatpackers and modeled after a similar poultry inspection program, shifts many tasks away from federal inspectors to pork industry employees and reduces the number of USDA inspectors in some plants by 40%, The Washington Post reported. It also eliminated processing-line speed caps, which data shows as having a direct impact on worker safety and food quality.
Worker advocates last year sued the USDA over the program's final rule, published in October, for failing to consider the line speed and food-quality risks that allegedly violate the Administrative Protection Act. Litigation is ongoing.
Attorney Adam Pulver of Public Citizen said the "USDA's proposed rule was not adequately vetted or shared with the public."
The agency had thousands of comments on the proposed rule two years ago, including requests for a worker-safety analysis, which was not published until after the comment period closed. Upon review of the analysis, researchers from Texas State University concluded that it "was impossible ... to draw any statistically valid conclusion about worker injury rate differences" between traditional processing plants and those operating with faster line speeds.
Tyson, Smithfield and other meatpacking companies have supported the final rule, which reduces regulatory burdens on the industry and allows them to use their own employees to handle certain inspection duties traditionally conducted by government workers.
"[The USDA] is always looking to modernize and enhance our processes," a federal spokesman said. The agency established a new poultry inspection system that also waived line speed maximums a few years ago. Data shows 140 plants have converted and seven have converted to the new hog system.
The Office of the Inspector General agreed last summer to review the USDA's rule-making process for the proposed swine slaughter rule after 17 members of Congress expressed concerns about reports that the agency used "flawed worker safety data."
The USDA published its final rule for the program in October, which included results from its worker safety analysis, and said it did not draw conclusions on worker safety from the data. While working conditions are an important issue to consider, the agency said it did not have regulatory oversight in that area. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration did.
A federal spokesman said the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service appreciated the official review but disagreed with the results.
The "findings place an exaggerated emphasis on minor errors made in the presentation of the analysis -- errors already corrected," a spokesman said in an email Thursday.