dad and child with messy roomThere is always a healthy amount of skepticism from parents whenever children claim they were able to clean their rooms in five minutes. While the children may have met the literal requirement of the parent’s request, you wonder what surprises would be discovered if you checked under the bed, in the closet or in the dressers. The parent often ends up having to verify each time that the room definitely has been cleaned.

This scenario provides an overly simplified explanation of the equivalency process at the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS). As many are aware, countries that wish to export meat, poultry, catfish, or egg products to the United States must demonstrate to FSIS that their food safety inspection system is equivalent to the U.S. system. This equivalency determination process allows FSIS to verify that a country’s food safety inspection system achieves the appropriate level of food-borne illness prevention, especially countries with a spotty food safety record.

Recently, FSIS issued a proposed rule that would allow China to ship poultry products from birds slaughtered in China. This proposed rule was the culmination of an extended process that lasted more than a decade and included a number of visits by FSIS and myriad correspondence between the agency and China. The process became prolonged for many reasons, but it always seemed that China’s intentions were always opaque or kept shifting.

handshake USA ChinaDuring my time at USDA, I was once approached at a conference by someone who claimed to have direct knowledge into the thinking of the Chinese government on their equivalency application pending before FSIS. He explained that China was seeking a better deal than what other Asian countries had received, adding that China viewed itself as the big brother in Asia and therefore should receive special consideration under these circumstances.

Somewhat taken aback by this suggestion, I diplomatically explained that FSIS is required to follow a process in determining whether a country’s food safety system is equivalent and there could be no “deal” when it comes to ensuring the safety of imported foods into the U.S. Assuming this person did have direct knowledge into the thinking of the Chinese government, it provided some insight as to why China intentionally protracted the process. By failing to submit requested information or respond to correspondence in a timely manner, China appeared to be sabotaging itself throughout this process. In actuality, they responded by slowing down other trade-related discussions.

FSIS recently announced it was suspending fresh beef shipments from Brazil because of recurring food safety problems that stemmed from an investigation involving allegations of bribery by meatpacking facilities in exchange for the approval of spoiled meat for export. Food safety considerations notwithstanding, USDA seemed to possess some leverage in suspending these shipments because of the political scandal this caused in Brazil, and other countries already had temporarily banned beef shipments from that country.

Additionally, since U.S. beef shipments to Brazil resumed just this year, the impact of any potential retaliatory measures would seem to be minimal. If faced with a similar situation involving China, USDA is unlikely to possess such leverage, so the question becomes whether the department would be willing to take such a forceful action with China.

If and when the FSIS proposed rule becomes final, an important component of the equivalency process is continually evaluating and verifying that the equivalency determination can be maintained, as the Brazil situation demonstrates. This ongoing equivalence verification process includes document reviews, on-site audits, and point of entry re-inspection. Given China’s recent record on food safety, it will be critical for FSIS to utilize these measures and continue the due diligence — checking under the beds and in the closets — to verify that China’s food safety system maintains its equivalency status.

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