NOBULL: FSIS Announces Major Cut in Import Inspections Four Years After It Took Effect

January 25th, 2013

FSIS Announces Major Cut in Import Inspections Four Years After It Took Effect

Advocacy Group Says Public Comment on Gutted Import Safety Inspections “Too Little, Too Late”; Chinese Poultry Soon to Come Under “Self-Reported” Inspections

Washington, D.C. – Today, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) published a Notice in the Federal Register that it has made a major change to the way it conducts inspections of countries that are eligible to export meat, poultry and egg products to the U.S. (Ongoing Equivalence Verifications of Foreign Regulatory Systems, Docket No. FSIS-2012-0049). The agency is also requesting public comments on this change. Food & Water Watch, a national consumer organization, says the announcement and accompanying public comment period regarding changes in the import inspection program are too little, too late, since the change took place four years ago, at the beginning of the first Obama Administration.

“It is time for the Obama Administration to fund this vital consumer protection program adequately and stop trying to rationalize the ways it has weakened it,” said Hauter. “Publishing a Federal Register Notice four years after the fact and requesting comments on the new policy is both futile and insulting.”

Until 2009, FSIS conducted in-depth annual on-site audits of countries that are eligible to export meat, poultry and egg products to the U.S. The system that FSIS used has been hailed as a model for other food safety agencies both here and abroad to ensure the safety of imported food. Apparently in 2009, a major change occurred when FSIS stopped visiting countries annually and instead started to rely on a “Self-Reporting Tool” for countries as a substitute to annual audit visits; countries were self-reporting that they were in compliance with USDA food safety and inspection standards. FSIS began conducting audit visits every three years instead of annually and the agency stopped the practice of publishing the audit results of individual foreign meat, poultry, egg plants that exported products to the U.S.

Food & Water Watch recently filed a Freedom of information Act request for those plant audits and has received 155 pages of documents in response.

This new policy remained under the radar screen until the fall of 2012 when both the former Under Secretary for Food Safety for the George W. Bush Administration Richard Raymond and Helena Bottemiller of Food Safety News exposed it. Food & Water Watch also became concerned as early as February 2010 when the Obama Administration proposed its FY 2011 budget that showed a 15.8 percent reduction in the FSIS budget for international programs.

The Federal Register Notice that will appear tomorrow is announcing a change the agency has already made. The agency has rationalized its decision to reduce the number of foreign audits based on vague recommendations made by USDA’s National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection in August 2008. Both members of that Committee and former Under Secretary for Food Safety Richard Raymond, have stated that they never contemplated that FSIS would gut the import inspection program the way it has.

Because FSIS stopped its practice of annual audits, Canada experienced its largest meat recall in history in the fall of 2012 that also spilled over into the U.S., with some 2.5 million pounds of imported contaminated beef entering U.S. commerce. Because FSIS stopped its annual audits, the number of rejections of Australian meat products for fecal contamination has skyrocketed over the past year.

The Obama Administration has cut the budget for the import inspection program at FSIS, despite the fact that Congress has appropriated the money that the Obama Administration requested. In the meantime, the Obama Administration is moving forward with plans to import processed poultry products from the People’s Republic of China and South Korea at a time when FSIS cannot adequately monitor the safety of imports from the countries that already export their products here.

“We’re not just importing China’s food—we’re importing China’s food safety problems along with it,” said Hauter. “It’s doubly important to fund our import food inspection programs adequately as more foods from abroad reach our shores.”

Contact: Darcey Rakestraw, drakestraw(at)fwwatch(dot)org; 202-683-2467

Food & Water Watch works to ensure the food, water and fish we consume is safe, accessible and sustainable. So we can all enjoy and trust in what we eat and drink, we help people take charge of where their food comes from, keep clean, affordable, public tap water flowing freely to our homes, protect the environmental quality of oceans, force government to do its job protecting citizens, and educate about the importance of keeping shared resources under public control.