Reposted from Food Safety News.
Investigation: USDA Quietly Eliminated 60 Percent of Foreign Meat Inspections
Agency also lacks foreign audit transparency
By Helena Bottemiller | Food Safety News by Marler Clark
November 1, 2012
Sending U.S. Department of Agriculture officials overseas to inspect meat and poultry plants whose products are destined for American consumers has long been a bedrock of our modern import safety system, but an investigation by Food Safety News found, the number of countries audited by U.S. officials each year has declined by more than 60 percent since 2008.
The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has also become less transparent. The agency has failed to make audit reports public in a timely fashion and only revealed which countries have been audited in the past two years this week following multiple inquiries by Food Safety News and a blog post by former Under Secretary for Food Safety Richard Raymond questioning the lack of online records.
With an increasingly global food system – around 17 percent of the U.S. food supply is now imported – U.S.consumers are directly impacted by food safety practices and regulatory systems abroad.
Just last month, a massive E. coli O157:H7 beef recall from XL Foods in Alberta, Canada, affected 2.5 million pounds of beef that had been shipped to U.S. meat processors and grocery chains. According to the Centers for D isease Control and Prevention, there are no known illnesses linked to XL Foods in the United States, but at least 16 Canadians have fallen ill.
The XL Foods recall, the largest in Canadian history, might never have happened if FSIS border inspectors inSweetgrass, Montana hadn’t found E. coli O157:H7 in multiple samples of the imported beef and raised the issue with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). Food safety advocates say the incident highlights the importance of a strong border inspection system, but also raises critical questions about whether FSIS has taken a more hands-off approach in regulating foreign countries sending meat and poultry products to the U.S.
Canadian media reported this month that FSIS was preparing to audit the Canadian meat safety system. The audit had been planned and was not prompted by the XL Foods recall, according to both CFIA and FSIS officials, but the reports noted that FSIS had not audited Canada, a major meat trading partner, since 2009.
Food safety experts and consumer advocates have started wondering: Why aren’t these food safety check-ups happening annually like they used to? Some worry that budgetary pressures are forcing a reduction in the number of aud its, or worse, that the reductions are part of an effort to liberalize trade at the expense of public health.
In-country audits are part of what the agency often calls a “triad of protection” for imported meat and poultry. First, USDA must establish “equivalency,” determining that the importing country has a food safety system in place that’s on par with the U.S. system. Once a country is given the go-ahead (only 34 countries are currently approved), the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service continually monitors the safety of imported products through strict re-inspection at the port of entry, by testing for dangerous pathogens, and by conducting “ongoing audits” to ensure the countries are living up to their equivalency designation.
Dr. Richard Raymond, the former Under Secretary for Food Safety, who led FSIS under the Bush administration, went public with his concerns about reducing the frequency of foreign audits this week. In a Meatingplace op-ed published Monday, Raymond questioned whether regular foreign audits were a casualty of tough budgetary times.
“I’ve always considered our foreign inspection program one of the crown jewels of our food safety system,” Raymond told Food Safety News. “Frequent audits are important. Without them, people cut corners – it’s human nature.”
Data show steep drop in foreign inspections
During the Bush administration, in-country audits generally happened annually, but, according to data provided to Food Safety News by FSIS earlier this month (which were posted online Wednesday), the number of in-country aud its has dropped dramatically under the Obama administration.
Online documents show that from 2001 to 2008 FSIS inspectors were routinely evaluating, in-person, the foreign plants processing meat for American consumers. The number of countries audited annually, with only one exception (in 2006 there was a large drop in audits), was between 25 and 32, so FSIS was auditing an average of 26.4 countries per year. From 2009 to 2012, however, the number of countries audited annually dropped to between 3 and 20, so FSIS was auditing an average of 9.8 countries per year.
INFOGRAPHIC: A look at country audits conducted by FSIS 2001 to 2008.
The number of foreign countries audited started to decline significantly in 2009, to only 21 audits, but the in-country inspections that year still covered many of the major meat importers, including Australia, Brazil, Canadaand Mexico.
In 2010, FSIS only audited 6 countries – Brazil, China, Honduras, Korea, Spain, and Uruguay – a third of what the agency had done the year before.
By 2011, the number of countries audited by FSIS was down to just 3: Australia, New Zealand and Poland.
So far in 2012, the agency has completed 10 audits, but the agency began auditing Canada on Oct. 22, so presumably that brings the total to 11. FSIS officials would not say how many more audits, if any, were scheduled through the end of the calendar year.
As of Monday, FSIS had not posted audit reports for all of the countries it audited in 2010, nor had it posted any information about which countries were audited in 2011 and 2012, telling Food Safety News that the reports were still under review. Sometime in 2009 the agency also stopped including plant audits in the reports posted online. On Wednesday, the agency updated its foreign audit page to include a handful of draft country audit reports as well as notes about which audit reports are still pending.
One former FSIS employee from the International Affairs Office told Food Safety News they could not imagine why the agency had stopped posting audit reports online in a timely manner.
“In past years, those audit reports would get posted within 60 days,” they said. “I’m surprised that FSIS isn’t being as transparent as we want them to be.”
A new approach to foreign inspection
According to interviews with former and current FSIS officials, the agency has, since 2008, been quietly changing its approach to foreign audits, making in-country visits far less frequent…