The Truth About Pork and How America Feeds Itself

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from Bloomberg Businessweek,

The Hormel Foods (HRL) plant in Fremont, Neb., is a sprawling complex, just across the Union Pacific tracks on the southern edge of town. Every day of the week, some 1,400 workers arrive before dawn and emerge in the midafternoon, chatting briefly in the parking lot before fanning out onto the highway. It’s a routine with few surprises, but inside the plant, a grand, if largely ignored, experiment is under way, one that is testing the limits of industrial production—and worker and food safety.

Each working day, more than 10,500 hogs are slaughtered here—their carcasses butchered into parts and marketed as Cure 81 hams or Black Label bacon, the scraps collected and ground up to make Little Sizzlers breakfast sausages. That’s 1,300 hogs per hour, a 33 percent jump in the last decade. To make that happen, Hormel invested $7 million in a plant expansion in 2005 and added an additional 20,000 square feet in early 2012 to meet demand for its signature product, Spam. “We’ve been fortunate enough to be doing business in Fremont, Neb., producing Spam since 1947,” Donnie Temperley, then the plant manager, told the local newspaper. “The people at the plant are very proud of what they do. They’re outstanding employees.”

What few people, even at the Fremont plant, appreciate is that its remarkable production increases stem from a special program piloted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1997. The program cut the number of Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) inspectors on the processing line from seven to four and permitted participating companies to accelerate line speeds in five pork-processing plants: Excel in Beardstown, Ill.; Hatfield Quality Meats in Hatfield, Pa.; Farmer John in Vernon, Calif.; Quality Pork Processors (QPP) in Austin, Minn.; and Hormel Foods in Fremont.

The idea for the program sounded promising: If plants hired their own quality-assurance officers to sort out diseased carcasses and parts before they reached government inspectors, then, proponents theorized, there would be fewer carcasses for the USDA to inspect and reject. This weed-out of diseased animals earlier in the process would reduce the chance of food contamination; it would also allow plants the flexibility to devise their own inspection processes, rather than adhering to rigid cookie-cutter requirements; and, best of all, these efficiencies would streamline production, reducing the cost of pork for consumers.

Almost from the moment the program was fully implemented in 2003, the participating meatpackers saw huge benefits.

But if packers have been delighted by the increased output, workers’ rights advocates say that runaway production increases have also jeopardized safety.

Equally troubling, the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General has raised concerns that faster line speeds could compromise food safety.

For its part, Hormel insists that food and worker safety has not suffered at its facilities in the test program, and any upticks in violations reflect more vigilance, not less.

Maybe so, but since May there have been no shutdowns or changes to address the concerns in the OIG report; on the contrary, the FSIS and USDA now downplay the report findings in interviews, and the FSIS has taken steps to implement reduced inspection and speedier cut lines nationwide.

When Upton Sinclair published The Jungle in 1906, he hoped to shock readers about the mistreatment of immigrant workers in Chicago’s slaughterhouses. Instead, his book created outrage over the unsanitary conditions it described.

For regulators, however, the timing of the book couldn’t have been better. At that very moment, legislation before Congress was calling for the establishment of a federal meat inspection program to be run by the USDA. President Theodore Roosevelt, who had supported the bill as part of his reelection platform, wrote to Sinclair, promising that “the specific evils you point out shall, if their existence be proved, and if I have power, be eradicated.”

In 1997, the FSIS in partnership with industry suggested implementing an experimental inspection program: the Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points-based Inspection Models Project (HIMP). This is the bureaucratic name of the program that has since allowed Hormel and the others to reduce inspection and speed up their lines.

FSIS recorded a total of 607 violations at [a Hormel plant in Fremont, Nebraska], roughly three per workweek, including 50 repeat violations for “yellow fibrous fecal material” on hog carcasses bound for processing and another 39 repeat violations for “yellowish colored residue” and a scum of flesh and fat inside storage vats. Hogs are large animals that discharge vast amounts of excrement in the kill room, and the sheer scale of slaughter and processing can sometimes make it difficult to keep equipment clean. Still, workers themselves say that such realities are why food safety protocols are so important—and why they worry when there isn’t enough time to follow them properly.

Upton Sinclair warned that federal meat inspection laws were little more than an attempt to mask the risks to workers—and predicted that the industry would make sure inspection addressed only the barest concerns about the deadliness of a product. Repeatedly he warned against letting meatpackers carry out their own inspections. His warnings resonate more than a century later.

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