In the wake of a massive recall of beef products from Canada’s XL Foods plant in Alberta, concerns have been raised about an apparent decision by USDA to significantly scale back its foreign country food-safety auditing program.
In fact, the beef recall, which has become the largest in Canadian history, was initially triggered when FSIS border inspectors in Montana discovered E. coli O157:H7 in multiple samples of the XL Foods beef being shipped into the United States and notified the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
According to an analysis conducted by Food Safety News, between 2001 and 2008 FSIS inspectors audited an average of 26.4 countries a year. In the wake of a 15% cut to its foreign food-safety program budget, from 2009 to 2012 the number of audits dropped to an average of only 9.8 countries a year. Only 6 countries were audited in 2010 and only 3 in 2011: Australia, New Zealand and Poland.
An audit is currently slated for Canada, although FSIS officials have stated that it is not related to the beef recall.
Meanwhile, FSIS has not posted reports for the countries that were audited in 2010, nor named which countries were audited in 2011 and 2012, nor identified individual plant audits. According to Food Safety News, the agency stated that those reports were still under review, although earlier this week, FSIS did post several draft foreign country audit reports.
“This is more of a document approach,” one former FSIS official told Food Safety News. “It doesn’t make sense to keep going back to the countries that don’t have problems.”
The decrease in both frequency and intensity of inspections of foreign meat and food product exporters aligns with the trend in domestic inspections: More responsibility for food safety being shifted to the company, with federal oversight of HACCP plans and in-plant intervention systems replacing the direct physical presence of inspectors on the lines.
A risk-based response
To a certain extent, that evolution makes sense. With meat and poultry inspection, USDA’s food-safety challenge is microbial contamination, not animal diseases or physical lesions that could be observed and tagged by someone watching carcasses file by.
But with imported foods, “document” oversight is not enough. It is crucial that foreign plants be certified as “equivalent to” U.S. facilities, but beyond that, on-site inspections need to be conducted regularly. Even with the best U.S. plants, federal inspectors are there on a daily basis, and periodic—as well as occasional surprise—audits are simply part of the program.