WASHINGTON – Food & Water Watch (FWW) and Center for Food Safety (CFS) on Jan. 13 launched a fourth lawsuit against the US Dept. of Agriculture’s final New Swine Inspection System (NSIS) rules in US District Court for the Northern District of California.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the USDA posted the final rule in September. The agency has said the NSIS improves the effectiveness of hog slaughter, makes better use of FSIS resources and enables industry innovation by establishing maximum line speeds while allowing processors to reconfigure evisceration lines.

Industry groups such as the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) applauded the introduction of the NSIS because the new system gives processors incentives to invest in new technologies while ensuring the wholesomeness and safety of pork.

“The US pork production system is the envy of the world because we continuously adopt new practices and technologies, while enhancing safety, quality and consistency,” David Herring, NPPC president, said back in September. “This new inspection system codifies the advancements we have made into law, reflecting a 21st century industry.”

But the most recent court challenge to the system argues that the NSIS is a threat to food safety and public health by lifting limits on processing line speeds and reducing the number of federal meat inspectors from processing lines.

The lawsuit states: “As a result of all of these changes — which will essentially eliminate much of the government inspection of ninety-three percent of the domestic pork supply — the health and welfare of the named plaintiffs, as well as that of CFS and FWW’s members, are seriously endangered by adulterated and unwholesome pork product. The named plaintiffs and the groups’ members have already been forced to spend money and will continue spending money in an attempt to avoid pork from animals slaughtered in plants likely to switch to NSIS.

“The rules cannot stand and should be permanently enjoined.”

Zach Corrigan, senior staff attorney, Food & Water Watch, said the NSIS limits federal meat inspectors’ ability to detect food-safety problems which will expose consumers to serious foodborne pathogens.

“It’s easy to read between the lines with these new rules: the USDA is letting the wolf guard the hog-house,” Corrigan said. Food safety is one of the most important protections in our country and gifting the slaughter industry self-regulation powers will mean pork eaters in this country will be facing higher threats of disease.”

Some processors may choose not to operate under NSIS and keep their existing inspection system. But all pork processors must develop sampling plans tailored to their specific operations. Several other rule changes that impact all pork processors regardless of the inspection system they choose include the requirement that all pork processors must develop, implement, and maintain in their Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plans, sanitation standard operating procedures (SSOPs), or other prerequisite programs. Processors must also have written procedures to prevent the contamination of carcasses and parts by pathogens.

Ultimately, according to FSIS, the NSIS likely would result in a lower prevalence of salmonella on market hog carcasses and thus lead to fewer human foodborne illnesses.

“Reducing the number of trained federal inspectors and increasing line speeds is a recipe for disaster,” said Ryan Talbott, staff attorney for CFS. “USDA has an obligation to protect the health and welfare of consumers. USDA cannot do that when it takes a back seat and lets the slaughter plants largely regulate themselves.”

In addition to legal challenges, the NSIS has been the subject of national news reports that question the pork industry’s motives and the safety of the new inspection system. Most recently, the CBS news program, “60 Minutes”, raised concerns about the overuse of antibiotics in the pork industry and the NSIS.

In response to the report, the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) said, “The facts are that in every federally inspected plant, FSIS inspectors are on the line, with the ability to affect line speeds and to determine which products enter commerce because they are inspecting 100 percent of animals and 100 percent of carcasses.

“It is unfortunate that NBC missed an opportunity to inform its viewers of the numerous systems in place and the initiatives taken by the meat and poultry industry to ensure their products are safe and wholesome. Instead, NBC chose to manufacture a crisis and instill fear among consumers at the holidays.”