USDA Is Removing Safeguards on Food While Everyone Else Is Fighting a Pandemic
By Tony Corbo
As the world focuses on the COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating impact on public health, the Trump Administration has been busy behind the scenes doubling down on its campaign to deregulate Big Ag. At the same time, it is not providing safeguards to food production workers and government inspectors who are being made to work on the frontlines without frontline employee protections.
The USDA Is Playing Fast and Loose With Meat Inspection Lines During the Coronavirus Outbreak
USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is deregulating inspection in some of the largest pork processing facilities by reducing the number of inspectors assigned to the slaughter line. They turn over critical inspection tasks to untrained company employees, and remove the cap on how fast the line can run. FSIS anticipates that 40 hog slaughter facilities will convert to this method, which is being called the New Swine Inspection System (NSIS). Those 40 facilities process over 92% of all pork in the U.S. Some of the big names in pork processing are pushing for this, such as JBS, Tyson, Smithfield, Clemens, and Quality Pork Processors. In one plant that has been experimenting with the new system, FSIS inspectors have 2.6 seconds to determine whether the company employees have performed their tasks properly. As a consequence, it is not uncommon for hog carcasses to be contaminated with feces, hair, toe nails, and bile to be greenlit for processing into bacon, pork chops, hot dogs, sausage, and other pork products.
Three lawsuits to challenge NSIS have been filed by unions representing the plant workers, animal welfare groups, and food safety advocates, including Food & Water Watch and the Center for Food Safety. FSIS hid critical information from the public when it first proposed the frighteningly minimal system. Food & Water Watch was forced to file separate litigation to obtain crucial, undisclosed information which revealed that NSIS would lead to more contaminated pork entering commerce and could lead to an animal disease — to ravage hog herds and/or be transmitted to humans. Plants that wanted to convert to NSIS had until March 30, 2020 to state their intentions. FSIS still refuses to disclose the names of those plants, leaving consumers in the dark.
Meat Companies Are Being Given Almost Full Control Over Their Own Inspection Standards
While it is struggling to keep poultry plants properly staffed with inspectors during the pandemic, FSIS has stepped up its approvals of regulatory waivers to chicken slaughter plants that want to increase their maximum line speeds from 140 birds per minute to 175 birds per minute. In the first two weeks of April, FSIS approved 11 such waivers for plants operated by Foster Farms, Tyson Foods (4 plants), and Wayne Farms (6 plants). These plants have all converted to the so-called New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS) in which the number of government inspectors assigned to the slaughter line is reduced and many of their tasks are turned over to company employees. Under traditional inspection, each FSIS inspector is assigned 35 birds per minute to inspect. Under NPIS, there is only one FSIS inspector stationed at the end of the slaughter line. When a plant is granted a line speed waiver, that sole FSIS inspector is expected to examine 3 birds every second — or 175 birds per minute. The waiver process that FSIS uses is done in secret; it is not open to public scrutiny until the FSIS reveals that it has granted the waiver. Since taking office, the Trump USDA has approved 28 new waivers under this process, mostly to the big players in the poultry industry.
Inviting everyone to the new game, FSIS is recruiting cattle slaughter plants to deregulate inspection, too. In late March, FSIS approved a waiver through its secret process for a Tyson beef plant in Holcomb, Kansas that slaughters up to 6000 head of cattle per day. The waiver is designed to reduce the number of government inspectors assigned to its slaughter line, increasing its line speed. FSIS has not revealed how fast the line will run with this waiver or how many fewer government inspectors will be on the slaughter line, but we know it won't result in safety for consumers.
Meat Inspection Deregulation Threatens Food Safety
All of these deregulatory moves are designed to increase production; they are not being done to improve food safety. They will contribute to expanding the industrial agriculture model by promoting the growth of factory farms. It's even more disconcerting that it is occurring in the middle of a national crisis.
As the Trump Administration has stepped on the accelerator to deregulate in recent weeks, there are numerous examples around the country of meat and poultry plants being impacted by the spread of the COVID-19 virus. While the news has been focused on urban areas racked by the pandemic, hot spots have also emerged in rural communities in Colorado, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Iowa, South Dakota, and Nebraska where meatpacking plant workers have contracted the virus while being forced to work, forcing some plants to curtail or cease operations temporarily.
In those instances where meatpackers have insisted on continuing with business-as-usual even when their employees have gotten sick, it has pitted public health officials against company officials and even USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue.
Plant workers and even government inspectors who work at these plants have not been given adequate personal protective equipment. It is virtually impossible to practice social distancing in these plants because plant workers and government inspectors work side-by-side in slaughter and processing facilities. When workers protested these conditions, Vice President Mike Pence had the audacity to urge the workers to continue "to show up and do [their] jobs."
Urge Officials to Take Action Against Increased Line Speeds
Increased line speeds only create more opportunities for contamination and sickness. It's unnecessary and it's putting our health at risk.
Tell Congress to stop allowing USDA food safety waivers. This is no time to gamble with Americans' health.
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By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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