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Food Safety News

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Letter From The Editor: USDA Drops Ball on Foreign Meat Safety


We practice at least two types of journalism here. Mostly we do daily journalism, finding out what we can and bringing it to you in the same news cycle. We are also are able to do some investigative reporting, also known as enterprise journalism, that requires more time to produce.

Usually, the subject of investigative reporting or enterprise journalism is going to know something is in the works, just as the target of a criminal investigation does. For the subject, there’s always the question of whether you can do anything about it before the story hits.

I’ve played this game from both ends of the field. I’ve done the hunting, and I’ve had clients who were the hunted. My perspective is there are not many options, but  I’ve seen a lot of stupid tricks tried.

In the old media era, an often-tried ploy was to leak some alternative version to competing media. By doing that you double your media attention and risk spinning  facts that may or may not be included in the coming story.

It can also become a problem when  you cannot  find a media whore when you need one. (It’s not that they do not exist, it’s just that the one’s that do stay so damn busy.)

So, I guess it did not surprise me this week when our pals at USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) tried to cut into the story our federal government reporter has been working on for weeks.

What they did was simple. They started disclosing previously unavailable information on USDA’s website. This was information critical to our story.  Their childish behavior left us with no choice but to publish what we had immediately.

That part was no problem because our Washington D.C. correspondent, Helena Bottemiller, was ready to go. We were  holding the story only  because of the storm and the election, the two dominant national stories that were suffocating most others.

But the media boys at FSIS left us with no choice.

We published “Investigation: USDA Quietly Eliminated 60 Percent of Foreign Meat Inspections,” By Helena Bottemiller on Nov. 1.

For meat-eating Americans, it is the most important food safety story of the year.

The media boys at FSIS whined about our headline writing, which went with the English language instead of the USDA technical manual, but raised no substantive objections to the story.

Just for the record, we know USDA does not inspect foreign meat during these audits. What is has done for a very long time is inspect the foreign meat inspection systems. (Actually, it’s hard for me to see how you’d accomplish such a task without doing a little meat inspecting, but everybody gets the distinction.)

The goal of our foreign inspection teams is to determine if the country exporting meat to U.S. has an equivalent food safety system to our own.

According to Dr. Richard Raymond, USDA’s last undersecretary for food safety, about 35 counties have been found through these physical site visits to be equivalent to USDA’s.

For reasons unknown, the current administration has drastically cut back these hands-on examinations of America’s foreign meat suppliers.

Raymond says these cutbacks in foreign meat audits by FSIS personnel is a far more significant story than last spring’s blowup about lean finely textured beef being called “pink slime.” I agree.

Food safety was never at risk in the LFTB, but once it was called “pink slime” it was a repeat of the old story about the dog not wanting to eat the dog food.

Timing problems aside, our story is getting some attention from other media and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) wrote U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack to detail his department’s efforts to ensure the safety of imported meat and poultry.

DeLauro, a senior member of the committee that funds the USDA, used all the proper language in peppering Vilsack with questions, including:

  • How many in-person audits does the agency intend to conduct in 2012?
  • Why did the USDA dramatically decrease the number of in-person audits of foreign meat and poultry plants over the past four years?
  • Why has the number of in-person audits varied from 20 in 2009 to 3 in 2011? Have budgetary constraints or considerations played a role in the department’s decision to decrease the number of in-person audits of foreign meat and poultry plants?
  • Since 2008, how has the department determined the number of in-person audits and the specific countries to audit each year? How does the department intend to make these determinations in future years? Have these determinations changed from how the department made these decisions in years prior to 2008?
  • How is the cost of those audits integrated into the department’s budget request for FSIS? Has FSIS requested or received less funding for in-person audits in recent years?
  • Why was the department’s apparent fundamental shift in in-person oversight – from nearly-annual in-person audits to irregular at best – not publicly announced or open to comment and review?
  • What is the department’s long-term vision for in-person audits of foreign meat and poultry plants for trading partners that have received equivalency? How frequently will those in-person audits be conducted?
  • What is the process for ensuring timely public posting of both plant audits and audit reports? How long will it take from the time an audit is conducted for the audit report to be available to the public?

Cutbacks in the system that has kept foreign meat safe before it is exported to the U.S. are recklessly dangerous because they have not been replaced with anything else. This amounts to a policy change executed in secret for God knows who’s agenda.

Further, this is yet another example of the current government preaching transparency, but practicing something else indeed.

© Food Safety News
  • JJ

    Until the last line I thought this was an actual news, then I realized it may be just as much a political move to place a negative headline directly before election day. Now, before believing there is an actual issue, I’d like to see to what extend there has been a significant rise in food safety incidents with imported meat over the last years. If not, then obviously the system works as it is now and the headline is indeed only politics…

    • The Sires

      Is this one of those, “I’ll believe it when I see [blank bad thing] happen?”  If the only protection you have is inspection of foreign safety systems and they are now gone [does anyone remember Melamime in dog food and the toothpaste problem, both originating in China], what is going to happen when the other countries realize they can pawn off their bad food to unsuspecting Americans so they don’t have to look bad?  Oh, and that never happens.

      Wait, didn’t China do just that?  Didn’t they sell us the cheapest version… because we ask for it?  

      I eat local and non-GMO when I can.  And I wouldn’t touch the supermarket meat from a mile away.  I can’t trust it because I don’t know what’s in it.  All the more so now.

  • susanrudnicki

    I will bet that almost NO ONE knows of the 140.000 domestic American horses going to slaughter in Canada and Mexico are thoroughly contaminated with drugs BANNED for use in food animals.   Phenylbutazone, one of the most egregious, is a pain medication administered to racehorses uniformly.   It was found to cause cancer in humans in trials in the ’60’s.    Racehorses constitute the largest fraction of horses going to slaughter, as investors are only interested in race profits, and disposal after the horse is “aged” at 3 or 4 years.       Worldwide, food inspection agencies turn a blind eye to the documented, scientifically tracked horse meat slaughter pipeline, endangering human health with their complicity of silence.  This story of our FSIS is just part of the picture of dereliction of duty.

    • Michael Bulger

      Sorry, Susan. Richard Raymond has taken it upon himself to bully other commenters on FSN. Woe be it to those who deviate from his agenda.

      Correct me if I’m wrong, but the USDA is now permitted to use funds for inspections of horse meat. That would make it possible inspect facilities in both the US and any potential countries that might export to the US.

  • doc raymond

    Our President, early in his term, said our food safety system is a threat to the public’s health, formed a food safety advisory committee, and then did this.  From 2005-2008 exports from 4 countries were halted 5 times because of our international audit and inspection programs. Suspensions would not have happened on 4 of those occasions if an annual audit had not been done. Until Monday, the last time their web site had been updated was October 2011. It is now updated, but there are audits that were completed over a year ago still not posted, just mentioned they were done but no results available for public consumption. Does that mean the audit team could have found less than an equivalent food safety inspection system, but they are still exporting? 

    • James

      Just wondering Doc — what are the stats under Our Previous President, GW Bush-Cheney?

      • doc raymond

        James, just read my response to the post. Those are the facts and the stats, what else do you need? Audits were done almost annually–we missed a few due to political unrest, etc. but averaged over 30 per year. now it is maybe 8-9 per year. what don’t you understand? 

  • Laura Burnett

    Just like everything else in our society, change wont happen until there is some huge tragedy that affects a lot of people!  What can the average person do about this?

    • doc raymond

      VOTE out the hippocrits

      • Michael Bulger

        Did you mean hypocrites?

        I think coverage like that done by FSN can also put pressure on the administration. We’ve seen that already, as Dan notes in this Op-Ed. (I am referring to FSIS making more information public, something Dan believes is in response to FSN’s journalism).

        It’s important for the media and the public to stay involved in issues every year, and not just during election season.

  • doc raymond

    This has nothing to do with the safety of imported meat. Go find another outlet for your agenda.

    • susanrudnicki

       “…nothing to do with the safety of imported meat” ??!!  Those contaminated horses are being shipped OUT of our country, to be slaughtered in Mexico and Canada, to be exported to Europe and Asia.   Are you saying, since YOU are not eating the stuff, why should anyone care?   Seems your “agenda” is your self interest alone, and no public safety issue is beyond your contempt, sir.

  • doc raymond

    Are you kidding? XL meats in Canada, the largest beef recall in Canadian history, is a result of import testing at our borders. What do you not understand about the need for surveillance?

  • This is a petty sounding, unprofessional writing. You sound like the worst of the amateur bloggers rather than a supposedly seasoned journalist.

    And it’s also very obvious that this piece was more than about food safety: it was also about pushing your political views.  Not every subtly, either. 

    This publication has just lost all my respect. 

  • John Munsell

    Mr. Flynn, FSIS is being forced to bow at the altar of unfettered global trade.  True, the agency preaches transparency, yet unilaterally greatly reduces its heretofore highly lauded audits of foreign plants.  True, FSIS did not publicly announce its fundamental shift which essentially deregulated foreign establishments from meaningful FSIS oversight, nor would it had it not been for investigative reporters’ activities.

    But I must defend the agency in this scurrilous protocol change.  FSIS can only implement what the Oval Office allows.  This is the same oval office which waited for ? 2 years ? to name an Under Secretary in charge of meat inspection.  That laughable delay correctly reflects the ho-hum laissez-faire attitude the oval office has towards meat safety.  Although USDA Sec Tom Vilsack gave FSIS last August 90 days to implement tough traceback policies, the Oval Office sequestered FSIS’ Traceback recommendations for many months prior to even allowing the recommendations to  be publicly posted and discussed.

    Why does the Obama administration drag its feet in these important public health issues?  Because multinational companies desire seamless international trade, not encumbered with foolishly nationalistic protectionist policies such as USDA audits of plants in other countries.  WTO is in cahoots as well.  Don’t wait for our Senators or Representatives to step in and require that imported meat be monitored by FSIS, or even be safe.  After all, our elected officials (in the Oval Office, Senate & House) are dependent on campaign funds from the same multinational companies.

    Dan, whether we like it or not, USDA no longer calls the shots.  While the agency defers to budgetary restraints, the real culprit is our lemming-like rush towards free and unrestricted global trade.  This rush creates a global soup of undifferentiated protein, in which only the cheapest (safety is secondary) meat qualifies to sell across all borders.

    John Munsell

    • Oddly enough, this is less about big corporations than it is about pandering to the Tea Party and the more libertarian elements of our society. 

      This is all part of a growing deregulation on industry that benefits large corporations, true, but is really inspired by both Democratic and Republican desire to appear “small government”.

      Less taxes, less regulations, smaller government…that’s been the name of the game since the 2010 election. And before. 

      Of course, the corporations benefit from the deregulation, and they do their best to propagate the beliefs that led us to this mess. Sometimes they do so openly, but many times they’ll do their damage via front groups and “think tanks”.  Oh, and dozens of webloggers and social media mavens to whom debate is nothing more than he or she who shouts loudest. 

      The corporations also have their commercials, and their little Facebook gimmicks and phony Twitter accounts. For instance, we’ve become a people who don’t know how to eat. At a minimum, we’ve been convinced to eat as cheaply as possible so they can buy that new gadget, knock off cheap shirt, or some other gewgaw they don’t need. And if we get depressed by the state of the environment, the nation, or the world, well we can all drown our sorrows with a bucket o’ beer and hot wings. 

      The changes in the meat inspection are nothing more than a symptom of something bigger than any one party or administration. 

      Bluntly: all the responsible adults seem to have left the building. 

  • John Munsell

    Shelley, regardless of whether the oval office, Senate and House are controlled by the R’s or D’s, both parties must be held accountable.  All we’re talking about here is food safety.

    John Munsell

    • I agree that both parties have to be held accountable, and not just for food safety issues.  Neither is especially good about climate change issues or animal welfare, either. 

      But to use a term like “whine”, rather than a more objective “questioned”; to bring in the BPI pink slime controversy, which is completely unrelated, and then to end with: “Further, this is yet another example of the current government preaching transparency, but practicing something else indeed.” This is a completely unnecessary politicization of the story. 

      Now, I find myself questioning the real purpose for the original story. Especially since, from what’s written here, it looks like Doc Raymond was one of the sources for it. We can see from Raymond’s comments which political party he’s cheering on.

      Yes, this is about food safety. But the concern for food safety is lost in the speculation, the innuendo, the sly asides that are just saturating this piece. 

      Now I have to treat any new writing out of this publication with enhanced skepticism. I will now have to wonder if food safety is really the only impetus for each publication.  

  • I just voted, and the stress is off. 

    Perhaps this post wasn’t so political after all. Or if it was, it’s because everything is political before an election.

    But please: don’t use whining. It’s a cheap word. 

  • Minkpuppy

    I worked in imports inspection for awhile and can confidently state that not doing these audits puts every beef eating US citizen at risk.  A large portion of the beef imported into the US is done for the sole purpose of making ground beef–McDonalds is a huge importer of ground beef components like beef trimmings and subprimal cuts for grinding.    Another large segment of imported beef is skirt meat which goes on to be needle-tenderized and turned into fajita meat that is served up at every Tex-mex place in the country. 

    Once the meat gets to the ID warehouse, it’s purely luck of the draw if the inspector performs a product exam on it.  Depending on the country it could be 1 out 10 loads, 1 out of 20 or even 1 out of 30 loads that actually has boxes opened up for physical examination of the meat and microbiological sampling.   If a load fails, the sampling increases briefly but once 10 lots pass without a failure, it’s back to business as usual.  That can happen pretty quickly when product is being inspected at several different ports.  Makes it pretty easy to miss a problem in it’s early stages.

    In addition, that meat may sit in a freezer container on a ship for 2 weeks before it reaches a US port.  By the time a problem starts showing up at our ports of entry, the country’s system could have been struggling for awhile.   

    In my opinion, waiting for a problem to show up at the port is not a fair evaluation of the country’s equivalency.  Nor is a scheduled visit for inspection that allows them time to prepare the plants for the US visitors and make everything spic and span.   I’m all for surprise inspections or at least short-notice so our inspectors can get a better snapshot of what’s really going on.  Doubt it will happen–“diplomacy” always outranks doing the right thing.

  • Susan Rudnicki

     Yes, a subcommittee of the Ag bill hearing process (3 guys from Big Ag states)  passed a rider to allow the inspections in 2011—BUT, the impediment is no money was appropriated.   It is not likely, with all the other issues facing the budget, that  this funding would appear since the product is not consumed here and such a funding release would amount to a subsidy for foreign business.   The other problem is, there is such severe censure of the placing of horse slaughter plants in communities, that the few wierdos trying to shop the idea around have been completely stymied by disapproval.   Two towns in Missouri squashed the so-called “investors” in horse slaughter operations  and another town in Oregon did the same.   The overflowing sewerage, offal dumpsters, criminal element employees,  avoidance of taxes by the plants, ruination of the small town business prospects, etc.  has made this “investment opportunity a NO-GO wherever it crops up.