Maple Leaf Foods, Canned Hams, FSIS and the 47 Percent
By Tony Corbo
About a year ago, the Obama Administration and the Harper Government in Canada announced an effort entitled the “Beyond the Borders Initiative,” that was designed to reduce regulatory requirements to encourage more trade between the U.S. and Canada. One of the areas that the two countries decided to pursue was a pilot project to eliminate border inspection for meat products exported between the two countries. At the present time, there are 11 border inspection stations stretching from Washington State to New York State where USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) inspectors check incoming meat, poultry and egg products from Canada to ensure that they are safe for U.S. consumers. All shipments receive a visual inspection and check of paperwork. Occasionally, the inspectors are instructed to perform a more detailed inspection, such as opening up the containers and sampling the products for defects and microbiological and chemical contaminants. This system has worked extremely well since it was implemented in the 1980’s after the General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office) found deficiencies in the manner in which USDA was inspecting imported food products from Canada.
Since the Obama Administration made its announcement last December, Food & Water Watch has expressed extreme reservations about the wisdom to the elimination of the border inspection program at USDA. While the Obama Administration has claimed that the experiment with the border inspection program will be confined to one Canadian pork plant and one Canadian beef plant, we know that “pilot projects” have a history at USDA of spreading to entire industries, especially since they will have cherry-picked the companies participating in the pilot.
We have learned that Maple Leaf Foods will be one of the participants in the pilot. We have also learned of various recent incidents involving Canadian meat products that have been rejected at the FSIS border inspection stations for a variety of reasons (e.g., meat shipments commingled with toxic chemicals, defective packaging that caused the meat to spill onto dirty truck beds, visible fecal contamination on meat products). It was the FSIS border inspection station in Sweetgrass, Montana on September 3, 2012 that discovered the E.coli contamination on beef products produced at the XL Foods in Alberta, Canada that caused the largest food recall in Canadian history.
On October 18, 2012, I received a report that USDA inspectors at the Niagara Falls, New York border inspection station had rejected shipments involving 40,000 pounds of canned hams produced by Maple Leaf Foods, Canadian Establishment 459. The inspectors had been instructed to open a sample of canned hams to make sure that the hams were safe. This was a routine inspection instruction – there was nothing in the history of these products that caused suspicion as this product was already in U.S. commerce. Much to the surprise of the USDA inspectors, when most of the cans were opened, part of the inner can liner came loose and flakes fell on to the ham. The 40,000 pounds of canned ham were sent back to Maple Leaf Foods. Maple Leaf Foods objected to the rejection of the hams because company officials argued that the problem did not occur when they opened the cans. Besides, the manufacturer of the liner said that while the liner was not designed to be eaten, it was safe to consume.
Maple Leaf Foods was undaunted. On Nov. 25, 2012, the company sent one shipment through the USDA border inspection station in Detroit, Michigan, and another through Niagara Falls, New York. I suspected port shopping, a practice of trying a different port when you have trouble getting a product through. This time Maple Leaf Foods sent two of their company representatives to watch the FSIS inspectors open up a sample of canned hams. In Niagara Falls, much to the company officials’ shock and dismay, out of the 20 cans that were opened, all 20 exhibited flaking can liners. In another shipment, 20 cans were opened and 22 defects were found because a new problem surfaced; two of the canned hams had a greasy black substance on the bottom of the cans in addition to the flaking liners. We learned that the black substance was the formation of sulfites that has been the cause for rejection of other canned meat shipments from other countries by FSIS. In Detroit, out of the 27 cans that were opened, 26 had the flaking liner problems. All of the shipments were rejected and sent back to Canada on December 4.
But the story does not end there. On Dec. 5, 2012, we learned that top-ranking FSIS officials sent instructions to their import inspectors that they were not to reject any future shipments of the canned hams from Maple Leaf Foods that have either the flaking liner problems or the greasy black substance because they are not food safety issues. They had caved to a big Canadian corporation.
When we heard of the FSIS decision, we decided to do our own inspection of the canned hams from Maple Leaf Foods Establishment 459. We purchased 22 canned hams in Upstate New York and 2 cans in the Washington, D.C. area. They were all purchased in Family Dollar stores for about $3 for a one-pound can. The canned hams have a two-year shelf life. The production dates of the canned hams we opened ranged from May 31, 2011, to July 2, 2012. After cutting my finger on the very sharp edge of the first can I attempted to open, my co-worker Walker Foley and I opened all 24 cans of ham. We found that four of the cans had the flaking liner issue; two had the mysterious black grease substance; and one ham had a bluish-green substance lodged in it. Another ham had a brown gelatinous substance caked on one end of it. Visually, you can see what we found below.
After opening all of the cans, the Food & Water Watch office smelled like a dog kennel at feeding time. I know that it was wasteful, but we discarded all of the canned hams because we did not consider them to be fit for either human or pet consumption. But the exercise did teach us a valuable lesson. There are U.S. consumers who buy these products. They are probably on fixed incomes, such as living off of their Social Security checks or their SNAP benefits. We all were aghast when we heard Mitt Romney dismiss the needs and concerns of 47 percent of the electorate because they were dependent on the government and were unlikely to vote for him. Now that the election is over, has the Obama Administration decided to forget that 47 percent as well? Not only should these cheap hams be not allowed to be imported into the U.S., there should be a recall – not a Public Health Alert – of the cans still on store shelves.
We urge the USDA to halt all pilots that would eliminate border inspection of Canadian meat imports. The FSIS border inspectors have proven repeatedly that the current system is needed because it works. In any event, Maple Leaf Foods, whose products were at the center of a food borne illness outbreak in 2008 and implicated in the deaths of 22 Canadian consumers, has not demonstrated that it can be trusted to ship safe and wholesome products to the U.S. and should be disqualified from participating in any such pilot.