The Trump administration, in its never-ending quest to reduce regulations on the agriculture industry, has unilaterally implemented a new rule that affects egg producers.
This new rule dramatically reduces the amount of time inspectors spend in egg production facilities, and will benefit large egg producers like Cal-Maine and Rose Acre.
The USDA announced the new rule in a press release on Wednesday, but that press release does not specifically mention what might be the most important part of it. In the release, the USDA says that this is the first change to egg inspection methods since the Egg Products Inspection Act was passed in 1970, and that the rule will make inspections of eggs closer to those of meat and poultry.
It does not mention that the major thrust of the rule is to reinterpret the phrase “continuous inspection,” which, as part of the 1970 law, has required a USDA inspector to be on the premises during the entirety of egg processing actions. Instead, the new rule will have fewer inspectors who make multiple stops per day, traveling between egg processing plants to visit once per shift, as reported by Reuters.
This traveling, once-per-shift visit system has been in place for meat and poultry, but has not been met with widespread acclaim. Investigations have shown that this system has resulted in a shortage of inspectors, and when any one of those inspectors is sick or on vacation, others are forced to cover untenably large shifts. This is part of a large pattern, as reported by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, of reducing oversight and allowing large processing corporations to have advanced warning.
The new rule will also have egg producers develop their own safety plans; the USDA says this will provide more flexibility for individual plants. Investigations from Food & Water Watch found that, in a pilot program for swine plants using a similar system, there was inadequate oversight and a very high violation rate for serious issues, like contamination with feces.
Egg producers have encountered a mixed bag during the COVID-19 pandemic, with record (sometimes allegedly illegal) high prices and sales in grocery stores, but record lows in unshelled categories, as a result of decreased demand from hotels and restaurants.