The COVID-19 shutdown has forced several meat packing plants to close.

Food & Water Watch and the Center for Food Safety have filed a lawsuit against USDA over the agency’s New Swine Inspection System that went into effect in December.

The activist groups allege the new system is contrary to the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906, which required meat inspectors with the Food Safety and Inspection Service to examine every animal before and after slaughter.

They allege the new rules prevent such inspections and hand over those responsibilities to slaughter companies.

“The new rules curtail the ability of federal inspectors to detect serious food-safety problems and expose those who consume pork products to serious health threats like salmonella,” Zach Corrigan, senior staff attorney for Food & Water Watch, said.

“The USDA is letting the wolf guard the hog house,” he said.

A spokesman for FSIS told Capital Press the agency can’t comment on pending litigation.

The agency did, however, provide comment to Capital Press for a recent article involving the new inspection system.

According to FSIS, the final rule on the new system has two parts — mandatory microbial testing requirements for swine establishments and the New Swine Slaughter Inspection System. Establishments can choose to operate under NSIS or remain under the traditional slaughter inspection system.

Under both traditional inspection and NSIS, FSIS inspectors will conduct 100% ante-mortem inspection and 100% carcass-by-carcass inspection. FSIS inspectors are positioned within a few feet of the establishment sorters and able to see everything the plant employees do, FSIS stated.

Corrigan, however, said the Federal Meat Inspection Act requires more than inspector presence. It requires the “critical appraisal” of animals before slaughter and carcass and parts afterwards.

“Our lawsuit details how under NSIS, federal inspectors are precluded and prevented from performing such a critical appraisal,” he said.

FSIS earlier stated if FSIS inspectors find persistent defects when they are inspecting carcasses, they will take appropriate action such as stopping the production line or issuing noncompliance records, or both.

The consumer groups also contend the new rules fail to require any training for plant employees, saying the agency’s cost-benefit analysis estimates companies will only spend the equivalent of four hours training their employees.

FSIS earlier said it doesn’t make sense for an establishment not to train its employees properly because failure to do so could result in stoppages or regulatory actions.

The lawsuit also states the new system lifts prior limits on slaughter line speeds allowing plants to move carcasses past inspectors at speeds that impede the critical appraisal of carcasses and parts.

Line speeds are based on a plant’s equipment, size, condition of the animals, the ability to maintain control for pathogens and the number of employees trained to perform sorting activities, according to FSIS.

FSIS inspectors have the authority to slow and stop the line to ensure food safety and inspection are achieved, the agency said.

Corrigan said the agency predicts a 12.5% increase in line speeds. With a 40% decrease in online inspectors, it’ll reduce average inspector time dedicated to performing a critical appraisal.

The consumer groups are joined in the lawsuit by two individual members.

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