Washington D.C. — On Friday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Office of Inspector General (OIG) released an Audit Report indicating that weak controls on imported meat and poultry are putting American consumers at risk. The news comes in the wake of actions to suspend Brazilian beef imports after allegations of corruption and unsanitary practices in that country’s meatpacking industry, and just weeks after USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) proposed authorizing cooked chicken imports from China for the first time.
Under U.S. law, a foreign producer may not export meat and poultry to the United States unless FSIS has determined that its government’s food regulation system affords an “equivalent” level of sanitary protection to that of the U.S. Once FSIS has made an initial determination, it monitors whether the country’s system remains equivalent through measures that include on-site audits. These “verification audits” had taken place on an annual basis prior to 2011, when FSIS announced that it would categorize countries based on risk and audit as seldom as once every three years.
According to the OIG report, however, FSIS has reduced the frequency with which it carries out verification audits without actually assigning most authorized countries a lower risk category. Some 24 of 31 authorized countries continue to be ranked in the highest-risk “adequate” category, yet none are inspected annually. OIG further found that the agency chooses where to audit on the basis of undocumented “non-performance related factors”; that it gives auditors inadequate direction in what to evaluate; that it lacks an adequate policy for deciding when a country’s inspection regime has changed enough to warrant an audit; and that it fails to gather data on why facilities once certified to export to the U.S. were subsequently “delisted” by a foreign government.
These findings raise serious concerns about FSIS’ ability to keep adulterated products out of the U.S. once it makes an initial equivalence determination. Unfortunately, they are also nothing new. In 2008, OIG found similar flaws in the agency’s equivalency process, and FSIS agreed to take seven specific corrective actions. Nearly a decade later, the agency has yet to implement four of those seven actions, according to OIG.
Contact: Thomas Gremillion, 202-939-1010
The Safe Food Coalition is made up of consumer, public health and victim groups who work on issues related to food, and organizations representing labor in the food industry.