The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it has stopped annual food safety audits for foreign countries shipping meat to the U.S. and will now do these audits just once every three years. The policy change was made nearly three years ago, and Food Safety News exclusively reported on the scale-back nearly three months ago, but USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service did not make the change public until Friday.

As Food Safety News reported in an investigation in early November, the new approach, which relies in part on countries self-reporting data to FSIS, has quietly eliminated 60 percent of in-country audits. These assessments used to happen annually in each country approved to sell meat to the U.S. to ensure their inspection system is “essentially equivalent” to USDA’s. FSIS officials believe the shift away from costly on-site audits will better target resources to the greatest risks, but some critics worry reducing the check ups will increase the chances of contaminated meat entering the U.S.

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Food & Water Watch, and R-CALF, a cattlemen’s group, criticized the move and questioned why FSIS didn’t make such an important policy change public until years later.

“Alarmingly, it seems that FSIS fundamentally changed the process used to assess ongoing equivalency with our trade partners without publishing a single public notice in the Federal Register on the revisions or seeking public comment on the proposed changes. It appears that the agency has been implementing and refining these changes for several years,” wrote DeLauro, in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Friday.

DeLauro, who serves on the congressional subcommittee that funds USDA, also wrote to the department asking for answers about the new approach in November, but the congresswoman said “to date that letter has gone unanswered.”

“It is time for the Obama Administration to fund this vital consumer protection program adequately and stop trying to rationalize the ways it has weakened it,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “Publishing a Federal Register Notice four years after the fact and requesting comments on the new policy is both futile and insulting.”

Bill Bullard, of R-CALF, said the group “couldn’t be more disappointed in this policy.”

“This is additional evidence that USDA is systematically weakening U.S. import safeguards for no other reason than to facilitate more imports into the United States and without regard for the health and welfare of U.S. consumers and the U.S. livestock herd.  This new policy is a reactionary, disease management policy rather than a proactive, disease prevention policy.  This new policy all but guarantees that the only time we’ll know of unsanitary conditions in foreign meatpacking plants is after U.S. citizens become ill or die from contaminated imports.”

New approach

According to the Federal Register, FSIS modified its three-part method for verifying the equivalence of foreign food regulatory systems by developing a performance-based approach for determining how frequently both on-site audits should happen.

“FSIS transitioned from an annual on-site audit to less frequent on-site audits based on performance,” reads the notice. “It took FSIS some time to work through the mechanics of this transition. Fully training its auditors and other aspects of the transition also took longer thank contemplated. Now that the transition is fully in place, FSIS is announcing it to the public.”

According to an analysis by Food Safety News, from 2001 to 2008 FSIS was inspected about 26.4 foreign trading partners each year, on average. From 2009 to 2012, the average number dropped to 9.8.

Countries Audited Per Year 2001 - 2012 (Bush years red, Obama years blue)

INFOGRAPHIC: A look at in-country audits FSIS conducted between 2001 and 2012, as of November 2012.

As previously reported, the agency developed a Self Reporting Tool (SRT) that allows countries to self-report information and policy changes to FSIS. Foreign officials provide information to the agency on things like preventive controls, microbiological and chemical testing, sanitation and government oversight. The self reporting tool has been supplementing in-country audits since 2010, according to the agency.

FSIS uses an annual performance assessment, which will also look at past audits and the results of port-of-entry re-inspection, to determine how often in-country audits should happen. The agency said under this approach “adequately performing” countries will receive audits every year, “average-performing” countries will receive audits every two years and countries that are “performing well” will receive audits every three years. In addition to these audits, FSIS plans to do “for cause” audits if, for example, imported meat from a particular country repeatedly fails port-of-entry tests.

Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at Consumer Federation of America, said Friday that, based on a quick read of the notice published Friday, there doesn’t appear to be any data presented to justify the change.

“Gathering information based on the self-reporting tool is useful, but the agency still needs to visit the foreign country regularly to verify that what is being reported is actually what is happening on the ground. That on-site audit component is essential,” said Waldrop.

It’s not clear what motivated the change at FSIS. Former officials say it was largely motivated by budget constraints and a need to be more risk-based about allocating resources. The agency insist that budget tightening was not the reason for scaling back in-country visits. House Appropriations Committee staff have confirmed that the agency has received appropriations on par with what they’ve requested.

FSIS said the new approach was suggested by the National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection (NACMPI) in August 2008, but consumer advocates dispute the claim.

Food Safety News reported: “One of the recommendation documents from the meeting states that the “length of time between audits can be based more on risk and compliance history in the foreign country,” and that “a three-tiered system may be appropriate,” but the documents don’t get much more specific.

“I don’t see anything in the document that says, ‘It’s fine for you to go three years without auditing a country’s system,’” said longtime consumer advocate Carol Tucker-Foreman, who served as Assistant Secretary of Agriculture for Food and Consumer Services under the Carter administration. “I’ve never seen anything that outlines the grounds for such an approach.”

The American Meat Institute’s senior vice president of regulatory affairs Mark Dopp said AMI supports the agency’s adoption of “an approach that captures the National Advisory Committee on Meat & Poultry Inspection’s recommendations, which provides for consideration of a country’s performance and allows for more efficient resource allocation by FSIS.”

NACMPI meeting less frequently

In her most recent letter, DeLauro said she was also concerned that FSIS may be showing “indifference” to the expert advisory committees that are supposed to help the agency create solid food safety policies.

Until 2006, DeLauro points out, NACMPI met twice a year. The committee did not meet in 2009 and has met only once a year since 2010 and NACMPI does not appear to have been updated on FSIS’ new approach to verifying equivalence from 2008 to 2012.

DeLauro continued: “As a November 2012 Food Safety News article noted, “the number of countries audited…each year has declined by more than 60 percent since 2008. Such a dramatic change should surely warrant clear communication with the panel of external experts that advise the department on meat and poultry inspection.”

FSIS is seeking comment on the new policy through March 26, 2012 here.