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September 05, 2008

Counseling the USDA on Food Safety

One foundation of the U.S. regulatory system are the advisory committees required by law to provide federal agencies with information and counsel. Full of hopes for good regulatory governance, I went to Washington last week to attend a National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection (NACMPI) meeting on international food safety equivalence, hosted by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). NACMPI members include academics, consultants, small-scale meat processors and one consumer representative, Carol Tucker Foreman of the Consumers Federation of America. Tony Corbo, of Food and Water Watch, substituted for Carol, whom USDA had double booked to attend a biotechnology advisory committee meeting.

U.S. law (e.g. USC, Section 120) requires that exporting countries have food safety systems "at least equal to" the U.S. food safety system in order for importers to be certified by the Secretary of Agriculture. However, U.S. legislation to join the World Trade Organization changed the law to allow food imports if U.S. regulators judge the food safety measures of foreign exporters to be "equivalent" to U.S. measures in protecting consumer health. About 11 percent of all meat and two percent of poultry consumed in the U.S. are imports, largely from Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Officials from those countries made presentations urging NACMPI to recommend the expansion of equivalence agreements to cover whole food safety management systems, rather than individual food safety measures, such as the cleaning of food contact surfaces in meat processing plants. Presentations to NACMPI are posted here.

Transnational corporations with foreign export facilties (e.g. Tyson Foods in Mexico, Cargill in China, Smithfield in Poland etc.) hope to increase, perhaps double, U.S. meat and poultry imports within a few years. To do so, FSIS must certify that either exporting countries can comply directly with U.S. food safety requirements or agree that those countries have food safety measures that are "equivalent" in the protection they provide to consumers. FSIS usually leads U.S. negotiations at the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the international food standards body recognized as authoritative by the WTO on guidance for international equivalence agreements. However, FSIS said not a word about its Codex work, and instead made presentations to advocate for "risk based" inspection of meat and poultry products at U.S. ports of entry and "third party" (neither exporter nor importer) certification of export facilties as safe, in order to reduce border inspection. Mike Robach, Cargill's vice president of food safety and regulatory affairs, made the Grocery Manufacturers Association case to NACMPI for third party certification to expedit trade and target inspection resources to products and facilities identified as "high risk" by FSIS.  The USDA Inspector General, in a report issued on August 27th, augmented its criticisms of the FSIS plans for risk -based inspection. 

FSIS gave NACMPI subcommittees just two hours to respond to FSIS questions, including whether FSIS should drop components of equivalence agreements that the agency had already committed to supporting at Codex!  I was able to speak briefly about FSIS Codex work and distribute a statement to subcommittee members that urged NACMPI to request the participation of General Accountability Office and USDA Inspector General auditors at NACMPI's next meeting to explain shortcomings in FSIS food safety management controls for protecting U.S. consumers. FSIS hopes that the industry's self-regulating audits of export facilities and the targeting of imports for inspection according to FSIS management defined risk will enable meat and poultry imports to increase sharply from the present four billion pounds a year. FSIS plans to maintain the current inspection force of 70 inspectors at 110 U.S. ports of entry. GAO identifies FSIS management as a "high risk" program. We agree with GAO and think that NACMPI should receive GAO's advice before FSIS asks it to make further recommendations on international food safety.


Steve Suppan


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