In an Illinois River town where Abe Lincoln once toiled as a country lawyer, the slaughterhouse of the future runs at a speed that generations of Midwestern farmers would have dismissed as fantasy.
At other factories, as many as seven government inspectors are stationed along the slaughter line to look for signs of contamination or disease. Here, in Beardstown, Ill., workers bear more of that responsibility.
Four federal inspectors officiate like chair umpires at a tennis match. They try to call out potential hazards as carcasses whiz by, before getting cut into chops and hams. Owned by Brazil-based JBS, known for its Swift pork brand, the plant is a model of lethal efficiency. It kills up to 21,000 hogs each day-as many as 1,300 per hour.
For the last two decades, with the government’s blessing, the Beardstown factory and four other U.S. hog plants have pioneered this grand-and, to some, unsettling-food safety experiment. Along with operating with fewer inspectors, these meatpackers operate free of a longstanding government safety rule meant to protect consumers from disease.
The federal government usually caps the speed of the slaughter line at 1,106 hogs an hour. At these plants, as part of a government pilot program, companies can run them as fast as they like.
The Trump administration wants to offer the Beardstown model to other slaughterhouses and estimates 40 plants will ultimately participate. Collectively, these process more than 90 percent of the 120 million hogs killed in the U.S. every year.
The program is part of a broader mission to promote economic growth by easing regulations in industries from energy to utilities to, now, food. The faster line speeds, which may be approved nationwide as early as April, could generate an extra $2 million a year for the average big plant, the government estimates.
What’s more, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said flexible oversight would lead to better control of pathogens and safer conditions for workers. In written comments on the proposed plan, Jim Heimerl, president of the National Pork Producers Council, stated that the USDA should be commended for “identifying ways to partner with industry” to improve efficiency and food safety.
But interviews with employees and inspectors, as well as the government’s own data and internal reports, raise serious questions about the wisdom of rejecting past methods. Federal auditors concluded that the USDA’s experiment includes too few plants to justify broad changes to inspection for all hog slaughterhouses. Scientists and advocates have labeled the USDA’s claims misleading and cherry picked.
“For the USDA, this has never been about public health,” said Amanda Hitt, director of the Food Integrity Campaign at the Government Accountability Project, an advocacy group for whistleblowers. “This has been about enriching the very industries they are supposed to be regulating.”
For decades, the USDA has pushed to overhaul food inspection, arguing…