Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard suggested Americans are at risk of eating contaminated pork because of President Donald Trump’s regulatory cuts.
"Trump’s effort to rollback regulations means that Big Ag now gets to inspect its own pork - & they decided to stop testing for E. coli. This endangers everyone, even if you don’t eat pork, because bacteria can easily spread on shared surfaces. This is swamp politics at its worst," said an April 8 tweet by Gabbard, a congresswoman from Hawaii.
There’s an element of truth to her claim: A government proposal would change the process for inspecting swine, and some consumer advocacy groups argue it will give greater control to the pork industry.
But Gabbard stretches the facts by saying companies will be the ones doing the inspections. It’s more nuanced than that. The proposal does allow plants to stop testing carcasses for E. coli (the tests are done to monitor sanitation and process control). However, there would be a new testing requirement for the same purpose.
Gabbard’s campaign did not respond to PolitiFact’s requests for comment.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is tasked with inspecting meat, poultry and processed egg products so they are safe to eat.
The agency in February 2018 proposed changing the animal inspection process at plants that slaughter pigs raised for meat. The proposal would require plant employees to sort animals showing signs of disease or other conditions from the animals that appear to be healthy.
Currently, plants do this sorting voluntarily and at the direction of agency inspectors. The inspectors are there to guide the process.
But sorting is different from inspecting, and federal inspections would still happen, the agency said.
The sorting of acceptable and unacceptable hogs happens before a USDA veterinarian ultimately inspects the animal. Under the proposal, government veterinarians would still be the ones inspecting animals before they are slaughtered.
The proposal would also require hog plant employees to trim and identify defects on carcasses and parts before an agency inspector does a post-mortem examination. Under current regulations, plant workers are not required to do post-mortem sorting — it only happens after an agency inspector directs them to do so and after the inspector does an initial sorting, the proposed rule said.
Plant employees who sort animals would be the first set of eyes checking a carcass, and government inspectors would be the second set of eyes doing a thorough inspection, said Sarah Schieck, who as an educator at the University of Minnesota Swine Extension provides research-based education and resources to pig farmers.
There are around 600 plants in the United States that slaughter swine. But the government expects that only 35 (beyond five in a pilot program) are likely to adopt the proposed voluntary New Swine Slaughter Inspection System, because they share characteristics of the plants in the pilot. Plants that don’t switch can continue operating under the traditional inspection model.
The food safety agency said it is reviewing public comments and in the process of writing the final rule.
The government proposed removing a requirement that hog plants test carcasses for generic E. coli. Plants do that testing to monitor their sanitation and process control.
Instead of mandating generic E. coli testing, the agency wants to allow plants "to develop sampling plans that are more tailored" to their specific location and that better monitor their process control. It recommended testing for aerobic plate count, which is "less specific than generic E. coli," the agency’s draft guideline said. (Plants could also choose to continue testing for generic E. coli.)
A shift to aerobic plate count testing wouldn’t pose a greater health risk for consumers, food safety experts told PolitiFact.
"It is reasonable to test for the largest group of microbes one can, because that will be the most sensitive to pick up a breakdown in sanitation processes," said Matthew Stasiewicz, an assistant professor of applied food safety at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The Trump administration is moving forward on the proposal, but this isn’t a rushed change it initiated.
Plans and data gathering began in the 1990s under the Clinton administration, and there was a 20-year pilot program in five hog establishments, the agency said.
Similar changes were approved and implemented for poultry inspections during the Obama years, experts said.
Still, consumer advocates aren’t applauding the proposed changes for the pork industry.
It matters if plant workers are the ones sorting animals, because "workers can’t safely speak up to protect consumers," said Amanda L. Hitt, director of public health and director of the Food Integrity Campaign at the Government Accountability Project. "Unlike inspectors, workers cannot safely blow the whistle on public health violations."
Jaydee Hanson, policy director for the Center for Food Safety, also pointed to a 2013 audit from the USDA’s office of inspector general that found the agency "did not adequately oversee" the swine pilot program and could not determine whether the program goals of increasing food safety and plant efficiency were met.
A separate 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office also said that the pilot program "would not provide reasonable assurance that any conclusions can apply more broadly" to the estimated 600 hog plants in the country, because of the small sample size.
Gabbard tweeted, "Trump’s effort to rollback regulations means that Big Ag now gets to inspect its own pork - & they decided to stop testing for E. coli."
The Trump administration is advancing a proposal that has been in development for decades. Some consumer advocacy groups are concerned that the changes will create safety risks.
The proposal allows hog plants to opt-in to a new inspection system, under which plant workers (and not federal regulators) would sort animals for inspection. However, sorting is not the same as inspecting. The food safety agency would still be the one inspecting hogs.
The proposal eliminates a requirement that plants test carcasses for generic E. coli, testing that’s done to track sanitation and process control. But the government would still require monitoring of process control and recommends other testing that experts said would be a greater food safety measure. (Establishments could also choose to continue testing for E. coli.)
Overall, Gabbard’s tweet is misleading and doesn’t tell the whole picture. We rate it Mostly False.