BY HELENA BOTTEMILLER | SEP 19, 2012
Some members of the Safe Food Coalition are voicing concerns about a pilot program that would eliminate traditional border inspection of certain meat products coming from Canada, arguing that the move could compromise food safety.
In a letter sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Tuesday, Food & Water Watch, Consumer Federation of America, and the National Consumers League said they were surprised and concerned to learn that the Beyond the Border Action Plan — a joint declaration by President Obama and Prime Minister Harper to enhance trade between the U.S. and Canada — included a pilot program that impacted food safety. The groups said there are “too many unanswered questions” about how the program would work.
The meat import pilot, which would be jointly run by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, seeks “alternative methods” for border inspection of certain meat products imported from Canada into the United States.
According to FSIS, the initial pilot is narrow in scope, only including a “small number” of Canadian establishments that export fresh beef and pork products directly to FSIS-inspected establishments for further processing. The companies must conduct regular business across the U.S.-Canada border and have a consistent compliance history when it comes to food safety issues like microbiological or chemical contamination. The agency is planning to use the results of the pilot, in September 2013, to determine whether some of the plants can be considered for a pre-clearance process.
In their letter, consumer groups argue that eliminating the step of inspecting meat before it enters the United States could put consumers at risk. They point out that Canada has a higher incidence of foodborne illness than the United States, citing estimates that nearly one in three percent of Canadians are sickened by food annually compared to one in six in the United States.
The letter also points out that in the past Canada has had problems with meeting U.S equivalency standards. In 2005, the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General raised “serious concerns” about the Canadian system and in 2008, the IG recommended that port-of-entry meat inspection be strengthened.
The letter comes right as Canada and the United States coordinate large recall of ground beef products from a Canadian meat processor after FSIS found several positive test results for E. coli O157:H7.
The groups attached several photos to their letter, which they say depict damaged meat shipments, visible feces on meat products, and toxic chemicals shipped alongside meat products that were all caught at the border by traditional inspection and sent back to Canada.
“We respectfully request that the border inspection pilot be halted,” concludes the letter. “We cannot discern any serious ration for its implementation. The current border inspection system works and provides a high level of protection for U.S. consumers from tainted imported meat.”
Former Under Secretary for Food Safety Richard Raymond told Food Safety News that while he believes border inspection acts as a “deterrent to the few that try and cut corners,” he is more worried about a rumor that FSIS might be reducing the frequency of foreign food safety system audits — from an annual basis to once every two to three years — to help with budget constraints. He suggested consumer groups pay more attention to the issue.
“I do not support eliminating border inspections if that is the very intent,” added Raymond. “But I would have to ask [Food & Water Watch] where they would cut 8 percent from the FSIS budget then — it is a fair question.”
Most discretionary programs are slated to take an 8 percent, across the board cut as of the first of the year after Congress failed to reach a deficit reduction deal last year. According to the White House Office of Management and Budget, FSIS would take an $86 million cut next year.
The letter, which includes photos, is available here.
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