Groups ask USDA chief to cancel deals with countries using controversial inspection system

September 20, 2013

A group of food safety organizations sent a letter Friday to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack asking that he cancel agreements with three foreign countries that are allowed to use a controversial alternative meat inspection system for products they export to the United States.

The alternative system is being used in a pilot program at five U.S. hog plants, which in May was the subject of a critical U.S. Department of Agriculture Inspector General’s report. The OIG found that three of the plants were among the 10 worst offenders in the country for health and safety violations.

In August, the Government Accountability Office also issued a report that said that the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has done a poor job of supervising the hog pilot program and has failed to properly assess its effectiveness in meeting the program’s objectives of improving food safety and plant efficiency.

Earlier this month, a Washington Post article documented how foreign meat plants that use an alternative inspection system, which the USDA has deemed to be comparable to the hog pilot program, have produced contaminated meat on numerous occasions over the past two years.  USDA inspectors have rejected 11 shipments of meat from Australia with visible signs of both fecal matter and partially-digested food on shipments of beef, mutton and goat meat from plants using the system. In 2012, Canadian food safety officials recalled more than 2.2 million pounds of beef contaminated with E Coli that was produced in a plant using the system. New Zealand, the third country using the system, has not had any meat rejected or recalled.

“The GAO and OIG critiques of the hog pilot program are clear – FSIS lacks substantial information on which to determine whether the pilot program improves food safety,” said the letter from the Safe Food Coalition, which was sent Friday afternoon to Vilsack’s office.  “Considering the problems with similar approaches in foreign countries, we question whether these inspection models are sufficiently protecting public health.”

In response to a request for comment on Friday, USDA food safety officials issued the following statement:

“The Food Safety and Inspection Service’s proposal to modernize the way we inspect poultry is about making food safer. Our peer-reviewed risk assessment shows that if implemented broadly, this proposed system would prevent more than 5,000 illnesses due to Salmonella and Campylobacter per year.”

Under the pilot program, plants are allowed to accelerate processing line speeds and replace many USDA inspectors with meat industry employees. It has been in place since 1998 in the hog plants and in dozens of poultry plants. The USDA is planning to propose final regulations later this year that would allow the pilot program to be expanded to all chicken and turkey plants.

The Food Safety Coalition also asked Friday that the USDA not move forward with these final regulations for poultry plants.

Although the USDA has previously said it plans to also propose regulations for hog plants, following the recent critical audits, department officials now say they will wait to make that determination until after they complete an evaluation of the program. That is due in March 2014.

The Food Safety Coalition is made up of eight food safety organizations, including the Consumer Federation of America, Food & Water Watch and Center for Science in the Public Interest.

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Josh Hicks | September 20, 2013