Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) is urging the Obama administration to not weaken food safety protections in initiatives with Canada as the two countries work to hash out the details of the Regulatory Cooperation Council and the Beyond the Border program.

“There are significant differences between the two countries’ food safety systems and easing the way for Canadian products to bypass traditional safeguards and enter U.S. markets could put public health at risk,” said DeLauro’s office in a statement released on Thursday.

The release accompanied a letter sent to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Jeffrey Zients, Acting Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, and John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism.

In the letter, DeLauro points to the recent E. coli O157:H7 XL Foods recall in Canada — the largest in Canadian history — to argue that achieving greater alignment between US and Canadian regulatory approaches would have “the potential to weaken public health protections in the United States and impede USDA’s ability to prevent foodborne illness.”

“Facilitating trade should not supersede public health protections,” added DeLauro, who is a senior member of the subcommittee on agriculture appropriations.

DeLauro also outlined several key differences between the US and Canadian food safety regulatory systems, which she believes are problematic:

• “The United States has zero tolerance for Listeria monocytogenes in all Ready-to-Eat products and product contact surfaces, while the Canadian system allows for a tolerance level of less than 100 colony forming units.  As you know, listeriosis is a serious infection that may be caused by consuming contaminated foods like deli meats and hot dogs.  This grave foodborne illness primarily affects pregnant women, older adults, and newborns.  Moreover, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that hospitalization rates and case fatality rates for listeriosis are among the highest seen for foodborne illnesses.

• Earlier this month, nearly 5,000 pounds of frozen butter chicken imported from Canada were recalled because the product may have been contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.  Although the product is frozen, it is considered ‘Ready-to-Eat’ as defined by Canadian standards.  While it is obvious that frozen products need to be heated before being consumed, there are non-frozen products that require additional cooking but can still be described as ‘Ready-to-Eat’ by the Canadian definition.  Meanwhile, USDA defines ‘Ready-to-Eat’ as products that can be consumed without additional cooking or preparation, as the term implies to consumers.

• In the United States, before a meat or poultry facility is permitted to ship its product into commerce, it is required to review its hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) records to ensure that all of the plant’s critical control points have been met.  Canada does not require this pre-shipment review of a plant’s HACCP records.

• Perhaps most importantly, FSIS requires a continuous inspection presence at meat and poultry slaughter and processing facilities.  Canada does not require a daily or continuous inspection presence at its meat and poultry slaughter facilities. This significant difference could explain how the ‘high-event period’ at XL Foods went undetected for an extended period of time until identified by FSIS testing.”

The letter continues: “It is alarming that the BtB Action Plan establishes a pilot program that would allow a Canadian establishment to ship fresh beef and pork products directly to an FSIS-inspected facility, bypassing border inspection.  The XL Foods recall underscores the importance of border testing and demonstrates that there are questions as to whether the Canadian food safety system for meat is truly equivalent to the U.S. system…I strongly urge you to prevent any food safety-related measures from being included in these initiatives.”