Privatized Meat Inspection: An Import U.S. Consumers Can’t Afford
Washington, D.C. – National consumer organization Food & Water Watch today objected to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service’s (FSIS) Federal Register Notice (76-FR- 11752 — 11755) that gives a green light to a privatized inspection system for all Australian beef, sheep, and goat products exported to the United States. The Australian inspection system, devised in the late 1990s and called the Meat Safety Enhancement Program (MSEP), removes most government inspectors from the slaughter line and replaces them with company-paid inspectors. The objection stems in part from concern that FSIS is confused about what they are approving, since it claims that Australia has simply renamed MSEP to the Australian Export Meat Inspection System (AEMIS). But in fact, AEMIS is an entirely different inspection system designed for meat exports to countries that do not recognize MSEP.
“Rather than approving this system for what it is—a departure from government inspectors to privatized inspectors—the Australians and the USDA are arguing that the new system is simply new in name only, which we believe is a way to obfuscate its problematic nature,” said Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch. “Food safety is a government public health function. As such, consumers expect a food inspection system that is free from industry influence and employs independent government inspectors who are well-trained and can protect the public without industry intimidation. We fear that MSEP will compromise those consumer expectations. That is why Food & Water Watch has been opposed to MSEP and the pilot project currently being conducted by FSIS here in the U.S. and we will strongly oppose its expansion.”
FSIS approved the new inspection system for Australian meat exports to the U.S. in 1999 (64 FR 30299), but because it created so much controversy both in Australia and in the U.S., no meat company in Australia decided to use it until 2008 when one beef company was approved to export its meat to the U.S. under MSEP. Food & Water Watch notified FSIS in 2008 that the agency had failed to comply with the 1999 Federal Register Notice requirements that it keep U.S. consumers apprised of any approvals under the MSEP system (64 FR 30233). Today’s Federal Register Notice is the agency’s attempt to comply with the 1999 requirements.
FSIS argues that MSEP is equivalent to a pilot project that the agency has been conducting in certain swine slaughter plants here in the U.S. since 2000 in which company-paid employees have replaced FSIS government inspectors on the slaughter lines (the HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project) to perform inspection functions. As of today, only five swine slaughter plants are participating in that pilot project – and it remains only a pilot project.
The U.S. imported nearly 563 million pounds of red meat products from Australia in 2010, making Australia one of the largest meat exporters to the U.S. While FSIS has been monitoring the trials being conducted by Australia using this new inspection system and has received assurances that MSEP achieves acceptable public health goals, once the scrutiny is gone, major problems with the new system could emerge. “We fear that FSIS is playing Russian Roulette with U.S. consumers,” says Hauter. “FSIS made a mistake to approve MSEP in 1999 and it is making major error in judgment to approve the expansion of Australia’s privatization efforts now. We strongly urge that the agency reconsider its approval of meat products inspected under MSEP. In fact, we urge the agency to re-evaluate what it has declared to be equivalent – MSEP or AEMIS – because we are not confident that it really knows what it has approved.”
Contact: Darcey Rakestraw, 202-683-2467; drakestraw(at)fwwatch(dot)org