EVANSVILLE, Ind., Jan. 22 (UPI) -- At least three lawsuits seek to stop a new federal system for inspecting hog slaughter on the grounds that it could endanger workers and lead to more foodborne illnesses.
"It poses a significant risk to the public," said Ryan Talbott, a staff attorney for the Washington D.C.-based Center for Food Safety, one of the groups involved in a suit.
Part of his group's concern, Talbott said, is that the new system will reduce the number of federal inspectors directly supervising the plant "line," where the animals are killed and butchered.
Under the previous system, inspectors were placed at various stages of the slaughter process to monitor for disease and contamination. But the new system gives the inspectors other responsibilities in the plant.
The USDA adopted the system Oct. 1 in an amendment to federal meat inspection regulations. The new system is optional for commercial slaughter establishments. Plants that want to implement it have until March 30 to sign up.
The USDA has said the change "modernizes" the inspection process by using current science and technology to make slaughter safer.
The new system requires slaughterhouses to conduct microbial testing for pathogens and develop written plans for sanitation. Inspectors removed from the slaughter line will instead monitor and review implementation of those sanitary plans and microbial testing, according to the USDA.
"This regulatory change allows us to ensure food safety while eliminating outdated rules and allowing for companies to innovate," Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement in September. "The final rule is the culmination of a science-based and data-driving rule making process."
But critics say that removing inspectors from the line will undermine the USDA's ability to spot and prevent diseased animals or contaminated meat from making it through the plant and into stores.
"It's stopping inspectors from being able to do the critical appraisal and inspection of the animals," said Zach Corrigan, senior staff attorney at Food & Water Watch, based in Washington, D.C., another group that is suing USDA.
In addition, the new system also eliminates federally imposed "maximum line speeds," which cap the rate at which animals and carcasses move through the plant, Corrigan said.
"Raising the line speeds is going to put a lot of pressure on poorly trained individuals who are not going to be able to conduct adequate inspections," said Sarah Sorspher, deputy director of regional affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which is not part of the current lawsuits.
More than a dozen organizations are involved in federal lawsuits asking the courts to overturn the system.
One suit, brought the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, alleges that pulling inspectors from the line and eliminating line speed caps will put workers in danger.
"There is no doubt that increasing line speed will increase laceration injuries to workers," according to the lawsuit, which was filed in October in the U.S. District Court in Minnesota. The union has asked the court to set aside a new rule through which USDA established the revamped inspection system.
The USDA has moved to dismiss the union workers' suit. Judge Joan N. Ericksen has yet to rule on that motion.
A second suit, filed in December in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York by a handful of animal welfare and environmental groups, contends that increasing line speeds will inhibit a plant's ability to humanely handle and kill the animals. The suit also asks that the new inspection rule be set aside.
And the most recent suit, filed Jan. 13 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California-San Francisco by the Center for Food Safety and Food & Water Watch, alleges that having fewer inspectors on the line puts consumers' "health and welfare" at risk. It asks the court to not only vacate the rule, but also declare it illegal.
The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service declined to comment on the pending litigation.
The agency has about two months to respond to the consumer safety suit. It has about a month to respond to a suit that was filed by multiple animal rights groups Dec. 18.
"Part of what makes this such an interesting issue is the way it brings together all these different groups with different concerns," said Lori Ann Burd, the environmental health director and senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of several nonprofits that filed a suit that challenges the new system based on the impact to animal welfare and the environment.
"These changes are bad for the pigs, they're bad for the workers, they're bad for the people living around the slaughterhouses and they're bad for consumers," Burd said.
Various meat industry groups have defended the new system, however.
"The important thing to remember is the USDA is still inspecting 100 percent of the live animals and carcasses," said Sarah Little, a spokeswoman for the North American Meat Institute, which supports the new system.