By Tony Corbo
Last week, Food & Water Watch sent a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack expressing concern over an indisputable increase in recalls involving imported meat and poultry products. It seems that ever since USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) implemented its new information technology system, the Public Health Information System (PHIS), in May 2012 to track imported food, some meat and poultry imported into the U.S. has actually escaped inspection from FSIS personnel, ultimately entering our food system.
In the wee-hours of Saturday, January 17, FSIS issued press releases revealing that two different shipments of imported meat had been recalled for lack of import inspection. This agency is notorious for issuing recall announcements on late Friday nights when most people are getting ready for their weekends and turning their attention away from work. What made these recall announcements even more suspicious was that they occurred on a three-day holiday weekend. One of the recalls involved nearly 170,000 pounds of imported pork products from Denmark that had somehow escaped port-of-entry inspection – not exactly a quantity that someone could hide under a coat and slip into the country without detection, but somehow it did.
In our letter to Secretary Vilsack, we pointed out that since October 2013, there had been ten recalls involving imported meat products that had failed to receive inspection prior to being released into our food system (an eleventh was announced on the night of January 21). There were only four such recalls during the George W. Bush administration.
In the afternoon of January 21, I participated in a regularly scheduled meeting with other consumer advocacy organizations and top FSIS management officials. At these meetings, we usually receive updates on the implementation of PHIS. Right before this meeting, however, I received an e-mail indicating that the agenda had been altered to include a presentation on how PHIS tracks imported meat and poultry products that escape import inspection. “Wow,” I said to myself. “Someone has raised hell about our letter.”
During the presentation, it became apparent that there were still glitches in the system. The coordination between PHIS and the information technology system used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection was still not working, forcing FSIS to conduct manual reconciliations of what was coming into the country to determine whether it had received inspection. As we were told, the process is “labor intensive.” Sometimes, weeks can go by before anyone realizes that imported meat has entered the country without receiving inspection. So much for automating the process, eh? We were also told that the President had issued an executive order requiring that the two IT systems be completely compatible with one another by 2016 – so we can expect at least another year of these snafus.
After the presentation, I commented that this item was clearly added to the agenda because of our letter, and was gratified that it had caught someone’s attention. I also noted that when the switch was turned on for PHIS to cover imports in May 2012, we were promised that the coordination between FSIS and Customs would be improved, and that import inspections would be conducted more efficiently. It’s obvious that this has not been the case. In fact, it seemed that the process has gotten worse. The agency claims that while the facts presented in our letter were correct, our conclusions were not. According to the agency, the increase in recalls of uninspected meat is a sign of increased transparency. But if that’s the case, it raises a whole new set of questions about how this agency has conducted its business in the past.
After the meeting, I was asked by a top FSIS official to join him in his office to discuss the matter further. He admitted that glitches remained with PHIS and that they were working to improve the system. He reiterated that the agency was trying to be more transparent with import shipments that failed to receive port-of-entry inspection and that the policy had changed in 2009. But if that’s the case, why couldn’t we find any announcements of recalls for imported meat that had bypassed inspection between 2009 and 2013? Why had the recalls started after PHIS was implemented to cover imported meat products? Were there no problems between 2009 and 2013? I received no response.
I have written before of the problems domestic FSIS inspectors have encountered with the $140 million PHIS. We have raised these issues with members of Congress. The New York Times also exposed some of these problems. Now, the same shortcomings are showing up with import inspections. Until this point, FSIS’s import inspection program has been the envy of the world. One hundred percent of imported shipments are to receive at least a cursory inspection, with intensive inspection scheduled for a portion of those. Some imported meat is detained for visual contaminants; others are detained because they fail microbiological testing conducted for pathogens and chemical contaminants. Bypassing import inspection is a big deal. While we are glad the agency is issuing Class I recalls, the most serious type, there have been far too many holes in the system.
In FY 2014, we imported over 3.5 billion pounds of meat and poultry products. The Obama administration is in the midst of negotiating new trade deals with Europe and Asia. If it gets its way, these trade deals will undoubtedly lead to increased meat and poultry imports. If the import surveillance system can’t handle what is currently showing up on our shores, how can the administration assure U.S. consumers that tainted imported meat won’t reach our dinners tables with these new trade agreements? Instead of fast-tracking the ratification of these new agreements, we say slow-track them to ensure that our food safety system can handle it. At the present time, we are of the opinion that it cannot.