Tyson, one of the country’s largest meatpackers, is petitioning the Trump administration to reduce the number of government inspectors at a Kansas beef plant — a proposal that has raised alarms among some consumer and food safety advocates, who fear the changes could jeopardize public health.
In the request, Tyson Fresh Meats proposes using its own employees, rather than independent Department of Agriculture inspectors, to take a first look at the meat being prepared at its factory in Holcomb, Kansas. Tyson’s employees would identify unsuitable beef carcasses and trim away defects, before USDA inspectors check every carcass that is allowed to go forward for disease and contamination, Tyson said in its March waiver proposal, which was obtained by the advocacy group Food and Water Watch through a Freedom of Information Act request. The shift would allow Tyson to speed up its factory line.
The USDA is considering Tyson’s request — the first of its kind for a beef plant — as part of a broader overhaul of beef inspections that aims to shift quality control from government inspectors to factory workers, while focusing the USDA’s attention on more targeted safety checks.
“We have to utilize our resources in order to do those tasks that have a direct impact on public health,” Carmen Rottenberg, administrator for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, said.
Consumer advocates warn that the changes could threaten food safety by keeping red flags out of the sight of expert inspectors. Dr. Pat Basu, the USDA’s former chief veterinarian, said that Tyson factory workers without adequate training might miss critical signs of disease, drug injections or bacterial contamination — and remove the evidence before USDA inspectors can examine the carcasses.
“They are bypassing safeguards,” Basu, who retired from the USDA in early 2018, said. “It could be devastating for the whole country — you cannot turn it over.”
Tyson’s request comes as the Trump administration is finalizing a similar overhaul for pork plants, which will allow them to reduce the number of USDA inspectors by having factory workers take over more quality control tasks.
James Goodwin, a senior policy analyst for the left-leaning Center for Progressive Reform, believes the USDA’s efforts are the latest example of federal agencies “moving forward further and further towards industry-led oversight.” Industries play a significant role in the routine work performed by many regulatory agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration, which has manufacturers test new drugs, then send the results to the government for approval. But Goodwin warns that the hazards of the broader shift are clear, pointing to the Federal Aviation Administration’s practice of delegating critical safety assessments of planes to the airline industry — a policy that’s now under investigation in the case of the fatal Boeing 737 MAX crashes.
Tyson declined to answer specific questions, but emphasized that the company was “proactive” in working with USDA officials to alter the inspection process.
“Tyson Foods is committed to ensuring a safe work environment for our team members, food safety for our consumers, and responsible care and treatment for animals in our supply chain,” the company said in a statement.
The company is currently rebuilding the Holcomb plant, which stopped production last week after being damaged in a fire.
A decision made behind closed doors
The USDA has been testing these changes in pork and poultry plants since the late 1990s, through pilot programs based on extensive public input.
But the administration isn’t planning to create a formal pilot program to overhaul beef inspections, which in the past has created opportunities for public comment. Instead, USDA officials said they would rely on individual company requests like Tyson’s to inform the agency’s next steps, praising the industry’s role in driving innovation.
“If you have an interest in waiving the regulation to test a new technology or approach, then we’re happy to consider that,” Rottenberg said.
Food safety advocates have slammed the USDA for making such decisions behind closed doors, without public input. The agency has privately met with beef industry representatives at least six times since May 2018, according to public calendar records. Tyson, which attended two of those meetings, spent more on lobbying and campaign contributions than almost any other meatpacking company in 2018, according to data from OpenSecrets.org.