Tuesday, October 30, 2012

U.S. drops meat audits

The United States Department of Agriculture quietly stopped annual audits of meat-packing plants in 2010, so was caught flat-footed by the litany of deficiencies the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) eventually uncovered at the XL Foods Inc. plant at Brooks, Alta.

When the U.S. Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) conducted its audits, a team of senior inspectors from the CFIA accompanied them and they wrote a joint report on what they found.

It’s possible that this senior CFIA team has also stopped auditing meat-packing plants.

In any case, the FSIS and CFIA are back on the job auditing XL Foods Inc.

Here’s what Dr. Richard Raymond, former United States undersecretary of agriculture for food safety, had to say about the situation.

“A couple of months ago, I was advised by a friend” that FSIS audits of foreign countries were no longer being done every year.

“I went to the FSIS web site for their foreign equivalency audits. The information here shows that for the years 2005-2008, nearly every single exporting country received their annual audit. We did make some exceptions for political unrest, etc.

“Slippage in numbers of audits conducted began in 2009, but during 2010, according to the web site, audits nearly stopped with only four performed.

“Apparently only Brazil, Honduras, Spain and Uruguay received an FSIS visit in 2010. Three of the audits were before April. Brazil received theirs in September 2010. The web site says it was last updated Oct. 6, 2011.

“At the FSIS web site, no countries are listed as having received an FSIS team visit during 2011.

“Taking this one step further, there is only one documented foreign equivalency audit (Brazil’s) listed as having been done since March of 2010. That is 30 months ago—2 ½ long years.

“Canada and Mexico are the two largest exporters of beef products to the United States and New Zealand and Australia export a lot of beef trim to us.

“Australia and New Zealand have excellent food safety systems in place, but they have not been asked to prove it since 2008, four years ago. Lots can happen in that time, like weather disasters, leadership changes and budget cuts.

“How does what happened at XL in Canada, one of our most trusted meat and poultry trading countries, fit into this apparent budget dilemma?”

I routinely check that FSIS website and have noticed that the last audit of Canadian meat-packing plants was for 2009. I inquired a couple of times about when they would be posting more current information, but never got an answer.

I never guessed that they had simply stopped doing the audits. They were, in my opinion, one of the most effective measures to ensure that Canadian packing plants and inspectors were toeing the line. Unfortunately, the Americans always identified major problems and the CFIA always agreed with the findings.

One major difference: Americans were protected from eating meat from those bad actors until they could demonstrate compliance with Canadian standards, but the plants continued right on churning out meat for the Canadian public.