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OIG to look into whether USDA used flawed safety data to push for faster pork-processing line speeds

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Photo: United States Department of Agriculture

Washington — The U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Inspector General is investigating the effectiveness and integrity of USDA’s procedures to develop and advance a controversial proposed rule that would remove maximum line speeds in pork-processing plants, according to a letter obtained by multiple media outlets.

Responding to concerns posed by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), USDA Inspector General Phyllis Fong writes in the letter, dated June 21, that OIG’s intended objective includes determining whether USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service:

  • Complied with public transparency requirements under Executive Order 13563.
  • Made information about its preliminary analysis on worker safety clearly accessible to the public during the comment period.
  • Adhered to USDA Data Quality Guidelines in developing the proposed rule.
  • Reached a reasonable determination about the reliability of the OSHA injury data used for the proposed rule.
  • Consulted with OSHA and NIOSH about the impact of the proposed regulation on workplace safety and health.

The letter is addressed to Durbin and 15 fellow members of Congress.

In a June 25 tweet quoting Washington Post coverage of the letter, Durbin expressed appreciation for OIG’s efforts.

“Bowing to industry special interests, the USDA relied on sketchy data to justify a dangerous rule change – and tried to hide that very same data from the public,” Durbin tweeted. “I’m glad the OIG heeded my request to investigate this matter.”

USDA published the proposed rule in the Feb. 1, 2018, Federal Register. The proposal cites analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data showing that, when compared to traditional plants, establishments operating under the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point Inspection Models Project – a 1990s pilot program (known as HIMP) that allowed lines to run faster than current limits – “demonstrated that they are capable of consistently producing safe, wholesome and unadulterated pork products.”

The current maximum line speed at pork-processing facilities is 1,106 hogs per hour.

In December, Debbie Berkowitz, director of workplace health and safety programs at the National Employment Law Project, issued a statement questioning the validity of the analysis after obtaining a copy through a Freedom of Information Act request.

NELP highlighted a review by two experts from Texas State University showing that USDA compared injury rates from traditional plants with five HIMP plants, all of which were self-nominated for the program and thus likely differed from traditional plants in various ways, including age, maintenance, OSHA inspection experience and worker training.

USDA’s regulatory agenda for fall 2018, published in the Nov. 16 Federal Register, states that the agency received more than 83,500 comments on the proposed rule. “Many of the comments requested that FSIS withdraw the proposal to remove limits on line speeds due to the negative effect on animal welfare and worker safety,” the notice states. “These comments will be analyzed and further addressed in the final rule.”

USDA, in the regulatory agenda, listed April 2019 as a target date for publication of the final rule.

On June 25, Berkowitz tweeted that USDA’s alleged conduct “fits the pattern of an administration illegally hiding data that is not supportive of their findings. No transparency and workers pay the price.”

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