Tyson Foods workers to replace some federal inspectors at U.S. beef plant

CHICAGO, Oct 27 (Reuters) - Tyson Foods said on Tuesday it plans in January to replace more than a dozen federal inspectors at a large Kansas beef plant with company employees, after getting a U.S. government waiver.

Tyson said the changes would improve food safety and efficiency, though some activists worried they could result in less oversight.

The country’s highest-selling meat supplier asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in March 2019 for a waiver from inspection requirements at its plant in Holcomb, Kansas. Other companies have made similar changes at chicken and pork plants.

The USDA granted the waiver in March 2020, allowing Tyson workers instead of government inspectors to check cattle carcasses for blood clots, bruises or signs of disease before the animals are butchered, company executives said.

The pandemic delayed the changes, but Tyson will now hire 15 people per shift to check carcasses, said the company, which worked with Iowa State University to develop training materials for workers.

The number of USDA inspectors at the plant will drop to nine per shift from 17, the agency said in a statement to Reuters. The number of highly trained government employees who do more complex work like monitoring animal welfare or meat testing will increase to seven per shift from two, according to USDA.

Tyson aims to eventually use cameras and computer imaging to evaluate the carcasses, said Jennifer Williams, vice president of food safety.

“This is a way to leverage new technology and plant employees to implement these steps, that will free up some inspectors to focus on improving public health, animal welfare and food safety,” said James Roth, director of Iowa State’s Center for Food Security and Public Health.

Meatpackers have accelerated automation after COVID-19 infected thousands of slaughterhouse employees this spring. USDA inspectors were also infected.

Activists said the inspection changes were a move to deregulate the industry.

“It’s really problematic,” said Zach Corrigan, a Food & Water Watch senior staff attorney. (Reporting by Tom Polansek)