Consumer rights group Food & Water Watch has expressed concern in a new letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack over the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2011 decision to reaffirm equivalency status to the meat-inspection systems in Australia. The concern stems from the fact that the Australian Export Meat Inspection System (AEMIS) has removed government meat inspectors from slaughter lines in red-meat plants, turning their responsibilities over to company employees. Since 1999, USDA has officially considered Australia to have an equivalent meat-inspection system to the U.S. The 2011 reaffirmation of equivalency was based on a five-plant HACCP-based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) pilot being conducted in hog slaughter plants, Food & Water Watch said. But both USDA’s Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Government Accountability Office recently found that USDA had no basis to determine whether HIMP pilot projects in hog slaughter actually improved food safety compared to conventionally inspected meat plants. “So, [the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service] has granted equivalency status to foreign inspection systems based on a domestic pilot project that might be flawed,” the letter read. The letter goes on to claim that Food & Water Watch has collected proof that the European Union has rejected Australia’s export system based on the policy that current EU regulations do not permit inspectors that are paid by the meat processors. Food & Water Watch concluded its inquiry into the future of Australian meat imports with a series of questions:

  • In light of the OIG and GAO findings regarding the HIMP pilot for market hogs, will FSIS revoke all equivalency determinations for foreign inspection systems that were made based on that program?
  • Has USDA entered into any discussions with the DAFF [the Australian Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry] about the concerns raised by the European Union regarding AEMIS? If so, what have been the outcomes of those discussions? If the EU accepts the DAFF proposal for third-party inspections, will that acceptance impact how meat is inspected for export in the United States? If so, will a new equivalency determination be required? Will public comment be accepted?
  • When will the most recent audit report for Australia be posted on the FSIS website?