Deregulated Foreign Meat Inspection Leaves U.S. Consumers Unprotected, USDA Records Reveal
Washington, D.C.—Today, the consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch released U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspection records from foreign meat plants that reveal troubling examples of how deregulated meat inspection regimes in other countries can put U.S. consumers at risk.
On October 18, 2012, Food & Water Watch filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) for foreign establishment audit checklists for all foreign country audits the agency conducted between 2009 and 2012. It had been customary for FSIS to post the individual plant checklists as part of the country audit reports on its website, but inexplicably, the Obama Administration had stopped that practice.
Food & Water Watch received 155 pages in response to the request, which covered audit checklists from eight countries. Three examples, from Australia and Canada, reveal conflicts of interest and long histories of poor food safety performance.
“These particular establishment audit reports should give U.S. consumers pause about the inadequacy of meat and poultry inspection systems responsible for the safety of products destined for the U.S. market,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “These records offer further proof that the Obama Administration must stop its efforts to deregulate meat and poultry inspection here in the United States and stop its recognition of privatized inspection schemes abroad. Plus, it is unacceptable that these records had to be obtained through the Freedom of Information Act when they should have been posted to the agency’s website in a timely manner.”
Nolan Meats – Australian Establishment No. 80
Nolan Meats is a slaughter facility that processes beef. It was the “trial” plant selected by the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) in 2006 to pilot a new inspection model in which Australian government meat inspectors were removed from the slaughter lines and replaced by company employees (called AQIS Approved Officers or “AAOs”). This new inspection model is based on the HACCP-based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) in poultry and swine that is being conducted in the United States. The alternate inspection model in Australia was originally called the Meat Safety Inspection Program (MSEP); it was recently renamed the Australian Export Meat Inspection System (AEMIS). After several fits and starts, the trial began in earnest in 2008. Data from the trial was provided to FSIS to determine whether this new inspection model should be expanded to all slaughter facilities in Australia.
On March 3, 2011, FSIS posted a Federal Register Notice (76 Fed. Reg. 11752 – 11755) in which it announced the formal recognition of this privatized inspection model as “equivalent” to the U.S. meat inspection system based on the trial. At the time, Food & Water Watch vigorously objected to the FSIS decision and pointed to potential conflicts-of-interest that could occur under such a privatized inspection scheme. Based on FSIS approval, Australia expanded the privatized inspection system to most of its red meat slaughter facilities in late 2011.
FSIS officials visited the Nolan Meats facility on March 21, 2011. In the audit report for that facility, FSIS staff reported:
“Employees of the establishment that work as the AQIS Approved Officers (AAO) conducting post mortem inspection, received financial benefits that are tied to profits generated by the operator of the establishment whose products they inspect. These AAOs receive salaries and profit sharing directly from the establishment. Government officials verify the adequacy of AAO inspection routines and meet the expectations of the CCA (Central Competent Authority). However, the fact that AAOs financial benefits are linked to profits generated by their employer appears to be a conflict of interest that needs the attention of the CCA” (See attached file).
In recent months, the number of imported meat rejections from Australia has increased dramatically, prompting FSIS to call for a review on the entire Australian meat inspection system. Several Australian slaughter establishments have been delisted as being eligible to export to the U.S. as a result of meat rejections. Food & Water Watch sent a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack on January 2, 2013 asking for a status report on the FSIS review and is awaiting his response.
XL Foods, Inc. – Canadian Establishment No. 038
In September and October of 2012, XL Foods, Inc., Canadian Establishment No. 38, was involved in the largest beef recall in Canadian history for E. coli 0157:H7 that sickened 18 Canadian consumers. FSIS issued several “Public Health Alerts” that described the agency’s efforts to help the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) recover some 2.5 million pounds of beef products that had been imported from that Canadian plant into the United States.
The contamination was first discovered by FSIS at its border inspection station in Sweetgrass, Montana, when a sample from a shipment of beef from XL was taken for testing. That sample and subsequent samples taken by FSIS inspection personnel tested positive for E. coli 0157:H7 prompting the agency to delist XL Plant 38 on September 13, 2012. It was eventually relisted on December 7, 2012.
In late 2012, FSIS conducted an audit of the Canadian meat inspection system. It included a visit to XL Foods Plant 38. Prior to that, FSIS last visited XL Plant 38 in September, 2009. XL Foods Plant 38 is one of several beef slaughter plants in Canada that has been using a privatized inspection model called the High Linespeed Inspection System (HLIS) in which most of the inspection on the slaughter lines is performed by company personnel. Food & Water Watch recently learned that FSIS had secretly recognized this new inspection model in March 2006.
The 2009 audit of XL Foods Plant 38 proved to be a harbinger of things to come. In that audit, FSIS inspection personnel reported:
- Poor plant sanitation
- Poor plant recordkeeping
- CFIA inspection personnel did not adequately document plant deficiencies or take proper action to verify that deficiencies had been corrected
- Inadequate oversight provided by CFIA supervisory inspection personnel resulted in failures to cite the plant for food safety and sanitation violations (See attached file)
Unfortunately, these are many of the same issues that were uncovered during the 2012 E. coli outbreak when the CFIA conducted its own internal review of XL Foods Plant 38. Food & Water Watch awaits the publication of the FSIS 2012 audit report on Canada’s meat inspection system to verify whether progress has been made, especially at XL Foods Plant 38.
Maple Leaf Consumer Foods, Inc. – Canadian Establishment No. 001
The Obama and Harper administrations have hatched a scheme called the Beyond the Border Initiative (BtB) to deregulate border inspection by allowing Canadian meat processors to ship their products directly to U.S. meat processors without first being scrutinized at the border by FSIS inspectors.
The current inspection system has been in existence since the 1980’s and has worked well for U.S. consumers since it prevents contaminated or otherwise adulterated meat products from entering into U.S. commerce. Food & Water Watch has vigorously opposed BtB from its inception since it eases trade between the two countries at the expense of food safety. Food & Water Watch has also cited examples (here and here) of how the current inspection system at the border catches problems before they endanger U.S. consumers.
The United States and Canada have been in talks to conduct a “pilot project” to prove that a deregulated inspection system could work. In October 2012, Food & Water Watch was able to obtain a document that described the pilot in detail. The document also identified Maple Leafs Plant 001 as one of the participants in the pilot project.
In September 2009, FSIS visited Maple Leaf Foods Plant 001 during its audit of the Canadian meat inspection system and found:
- Poor recordkeeping
- Flaking paint over food contact areas
- Poor sanitation
- Poor employee food handling practices
- Deficient enforcement of food safety standards by CFIA inspection personnel
- Lack of daily inspection by CFIA inspection personnel of all shifts
- Insufficient training of CFIA inspection personnel (See attached file)
Maple Leaf Foods Plant 001 was also part of the 2012 audit conducted by FSIS.
“If this plant is the best that the Obama and Harper administrations can offer, we remain convinced that no pilot should be conducted to test the Beyond the Border initiative for meat inspection,” said Hauter. “The Obama Administration should abandon its ill-conceived initiative for meat inspection because it will leave U.S. consumers vulnerable to unsafe meat products from Canada.”
Inspection records obtained by the October 18, 2012, FOIA can be downloaded here: http://documents.foodandwaterwatch.org/doc/2013_Jan_15_FSIS_foreign_audit.pdf
Contact: Anna Ghosh, aghosh(at)fwwatch(dot)org, 415-293-9905