Collaboration or Obfuscation?
By Tony Corbo
Recently, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) agreed to share information during the investigation of foodborne illness outbreaks. A laudable effort since animal diseases and pathogens that lurk in animal husbandry can often lead to human foodborne illnesses. But this recent announcement is clouded by the revelation that FSIS may have deliberately delayed the release of an audit report that revealed some serious shortcomings in the Brazilian meat safety system. Had that report been publicly released on the date that it had been transmitted to the Brazilian government, on April 16, 2014, it would have provided valuable information for a proposed APHIS rule to green light the importation of fresh beef products from Brazil. The comment period on the APHIS proposed rule ended on April 22, 2014. Apparently, the FSIS audit report was only recently posted on its website and was made public as a result of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA).
At the present time, Brazil is permitted to export only cooked red meat products to the U.S. due to numerous outbreaks of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) in its animal herds. Cooking can kill the disease, but the FMD virus can quickly spread in animal herds and lead to death in affected animals. Cattle, pigs, sheep and goats are particularly susceptible to this disease. According to USDA, the disease does not pose a human health risk. The U.S. eradicated FMD in 1929, and until recently, USDA has been adamant about prohibiting the importation of live animals and fresh meat from countries that have had FMD outbreaks.
What has changed? It seems that the U.S. is in a bit of a pickle over the subsidies that are paid to the domestic cotton industry. In 2002, Brazil filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO) over those subsidies arguing that the price of U.S. cotton was kept artificially low. In 2004, the WTO sided with Brazil. In the meantime, the 2008 Farm Bill did not fix the problem, so Brazil threatened to levy retaliatory tariffs on U.S. imported goods for non-compliance with the WTO ruling.
On April 6, 2010, USDA issued a press release entitled, “U.S., Brazil Agree Upon Path Toward Negotiated Solution of Cotton Dispute Would Avoid Imposition of Countermeasures Against U.S. Exports, U.S. Intellectual Property Rights.” The agreement reached between the two countries included the annual payment by the U.S. to the Brazilian cotton industry of $147.3 million (that’s right, U.S. taxpayers are not only subsidizing U.S. cotton farmers, but also Brazilian cotton farmers) and the promulgation of a rule that would permit the Brazilian state of Santa Catarina to export fresh red meat to the U.S.
According to the press release, the U.S. was obligated as part of this agreement to determine that Santa Catarina was free of FMD. At the time of the announcement, Food & Water Watch argued to USDA officials that the fresh meat question seemed to be a non sequitur – how were fresh meat imports related to cotton? In addition, Brazil had a poor food safety track record even for the cooked poultry products the country was already eligible to export to the U.S., so why expand the meat products it was eligible to export? In fact, for several months in 2010, all meat imports from Brazil were halted due to excessive animal drug residues found by FSIS import inspection personnel in the Brazilian meat products. We also had concerns that APHIS was also deviating from its longstanding policy of banning products from entire countries that had exotic animal health issues but was now adopting a new policy of accepting products from regions of countries that allegedly were free of those diseases.
In any event, APHIS proposed a rule that would permit the importation of fresh meat products from Santa Catarina from an animal health standpoint because the agency had found that state free from FMD. On November 16, 2010, APHIS finalized the rule. Ironically, there have still been no imports of fresh meat products from Santa Catarina because FSIS has food safety concerns with the Brazilian meat inspection system. As we now know, FSIS was in Brazil from February 18, 2013 through March 14, 2013 conducting an audit of the Brazilian food safety system. But that has not stopped APHIS from encouraging more Brazilian meat imports.
In an early Christmas present to the Brazilians, APHIS proposed a rule on December 23, 2013 to expand its approval of fresh meat imports to 14 additional Brazilian states claiming that they were free of FMD. The timing of the proposed rule seemed to be contrived hoping to catch anyone interested in the issue preoccupied with the impending holiday and not on work. The comment period on the proposed rule was to have closed on February 21, 2014. Mind you, the issue of the cotton subsidies still had not been resolved, as the Congress still had not passed the new Farm Bill.
The proposed rule caused an immediate uproar among domestic livestock producers, and key members of Congress asked that the comment period on the proposed rule be extended. The comment period was extended to April 22, 2014. During an appearance before the National Farmers Union convention in March 2014, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack tried to assuage concerns expressed by the members of that organization about the new APHIS proposed rule on Brazil by telling them that USDA would not allow any products into the U.S. that would create risk. Needless to say, the Secretary’s comments failed to calm domestic livestock producers or Food & Water Watch as most of the nearly 900 comments that were filed expressed opposition to the proposed rule.
It is rare that we find ourselves in agreement with the NCBA, but that organization should be commended in this instance for trying to do its homework in fashioning informed comments on this proposed rule. NCBA was correct in trying to have the March 2013 FSIS audit report of the Brazilian food safety system published prior to the closure of the comment period on the APHIS proposed rule.
More than a year had elapsed since the onsite FSIS visits ended. What was FSIS trying to hide that could impinge on the APHIS rule? These are the key findings of the FSIS audit report:
- The Brazilian food safety agency did not provide a standard guideline/circular to its inspection personnel concerning the definition of specific risk material in cattle in accordance with FSIS’ regulations resulting in inconsistent implementation of the SRM requirements throughout the system; this is key to preventing cattle infected with mad cow disease from being processed. Brazil just reported its second case of mad cow disease just this week
- The Brazilian food safety agency’s verification sampling program for ready-to-eat products did not include ongoing verification sampling of food contact surfaces and environmental (non-food contact surfaces) in accordance with FSIS’ equivalence criteria for Listeria Monocytogenes control in ready-to-eat products
- The Brazilian food safety agency’s inspection personnel did not fully enforce its basic and ongoing HACCP requirements concerning the contents of HACCP plans and recordkeeping requirements
- Even though the Brazilian food safety agency claimed that it had implemented an effective monitoring system for excessive animal drug residues, FSIS import inspectors were still finding violations in Brazilian cooked meat products at our ports-of-entry
In spite of all of these findings, Brazil was still found to have an equivalent food safety system to that of the U.S. If Brazil is still encountering difficulty in meeting our standards for cooked meat products, why should we entertain expanding its export opportunities to fresh meat? It seems that the current administration is more interested in promoting trade rather than enforcing strong food safety standards.
As a grizzled veteran of fights with the FSIS FOIA operation, I’ve experienced first hand the delays, the subterfuge, the excuses, the changes in policies, the games that FSIS can play with legitimate requests for information. Reading about the NCBA experience and its FOIA request, I said to myself that this is the same treatment I get from the most open and transparent administration in the history of the country. Misery loves company. And, I also concluded that the so-called collaboration between APHIS and FSIS has a more sinister side that needs to be investigated.
Finally, I have one piece of advice for NCBA. Your organization has been a vehement opponent of Country of Origin Labeling for meat products. With what you now know about Brazil as a result of your FOIA response, it may be time to reevaluate your position on COOL.