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.

Of course, food safety is a serious matter, with tens of thousands of Americans suffering food-related illnesses every year. Whether the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s estimated 128,000 annual hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths a year is accurate or not, the cost of dealing with food-borne illnesses runs into the tens—maybe hundreds—of billions of dollars a year.

This situation with the apparent reduction in the frequency and intensity of foreign food processor-exporters underlines the danger of across-the-board budget cuts. While politicians and the public can certainly argue over the politics of deficit reduction and budget balancing, there are certain essential activities that USDA and other agencies must continue to conduct.

And when it comes to the safety of imported foods, there are simply no private-sector options available to assume government’s oversight role. Either inspections—especially in-plant visitations in foreign countries—are fully funded, or they don’t happen at all.

A debate over the overall size and scope of government is a useful tool to keep federal agencies focused on their primary missions. But with health and safety, government efforts cannot be compromised simply because some people object to footing the bill.

In the end, even as we assess government’s proper role and reach, it’s critical to remember that there is discretionary spending and there are essential programs. Even as we surgically reduce the former, we need to aggressively maintain the latter.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.