New rules proposed to ‘modernize’ swine processing industry

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has proposed a series of changes affecting the swine industry in the U.S., particularly regarding the way hogs slaughtered for meat are processed. Regulators say the proposal will make industry practices better, but some worry about the implications for food safety.

USDA has proposed a new inspection system that hog slaughter plants could voluntarily join. The system would allow plants to self-determine which pigs are unfit for processing, instead of leaving the decision to federal inspectors who conduct visual tests. The change would open other options for plants, including automated quality control technology.

The proposed rules, which have been tested on five pilot plants over the past 15 years, are similar to those enacted for the poultry industry in 2014. The goal is to “modernize” swine inspection by allowing facilities to operate more quickly and freely.

To that effect, the proposals revoke limits on line speeds, allowing plants to process a greater number of hogs a day. Currently, plants can process 1,106 hogs per hour, reports the Associated Press.

Though most of the proposed changes are optional, there is one mandatory change: for all processing plants to set up a daily documentation system that tracks measures taken to prevent bacterial contamination, including procedures for microbial testing.

Although the federal inspectors would continue to focus on food safety in other areas of the plant, critics say the move could increase the risk that pathogens — like E. coli and Listeria — in contaminated meat could reach consumers’ dinner plates. They also say the changes could present challenges to worker safety. USDA counters that the rules may in fact lower bacterial contamination — and therefore fewer human illnesses — because the focus shifts away from visual inspections.

USDA will be taking comments on the proposed rules, and no date for enactment is in place. You can read the proposed rules in full here.

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