Between USDA’s on-site verification audit of the United Kingdom’s meat inspection system July 15-Aug.2, 2019, and last Friday’s public release of the report, Britain left the European Union.

The report, which contains “no systemic findings,” does acknowledge the audit was conducted before Jan. 31, 2020, when the UK implemented Brexit by withdrawing from the EU.

“At the time of the audit, the United Kingdom was a member of the European Union (EU) and drawing its authority to enforce inspection laws from Regulation (EU) No. 178/2002, which establishes the general principals and requirements of food law, defines the European Food Safety Authority, and procedures in matters of food safety,” the report says.

“The United Kingdom implements the requirements of the EC Food Hygiene Regulations, which are the primary overreaching laws for regulating meat inspection and have been found to be the equivalent of that of the United States.”

Government oversight is one of the six “equivalence components” that are included in a foreign equivalency audit. The report says food safety and standards are “devolved matters” in that they are government authorities that are delegated to institutions like the Scottish Parliament and the Assemblies of Wales, Northern Ireland, and London or to even more local authorities.

Within this structure, the USDA report recognizes the UK’s Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) as the country’s central authority “for international trade negotiations on all sanitary and phytosanitary matters and international trade of food of animal origin.”

The purpose of the audit was to determine whether the UK’s food safety inspection system governing raw pork remains equivalent to that of the United States with the ability to export products that are safe and properly labeled.

As the audit got underway, England and Northern Ireland were eligible to export raw pork products to the United States.

The audit was also to assess whether the UK’s regulatory oversight for beef and small ruminants is sufficient for export to the U.S. and if the system was adequate for all four UK countries: England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

“An analysis of the on-site audit observations within each component (there are six) did not identify any deficiencies that represented an immediate threat to public health,” the report says.

The auditors from USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) “concluded that the United Kingdom’s meat inspection system government raw pork, raw beef, and small ruminants’ function in a manner equivalent to that of the United States.

They found the UK “implements a single food safety inspection system by applying the same set of laws, regulations, and policies to all establishments certified to export to the United States.”

The audit report, dated Feb. 26, 2020, was sent to Christine Middlemiss, the chief veterinary officer for the UK, on March 6, 2020, the same date it was made publicly available by the U.S. FSIS.

The on-site audit included two laboratories, five beef facilities including slaughter and processing functions, one lamb and mutton slaughter and raw processing facility, one pork slaughter, and a processing plant, and a cold storage facility. Regulatory offices were also visited in the four countries.

For a three-year period, from 2016 to 2019, FSIS re-inspected 100 percent of the raw pork exported to the U.S. from England and Northern Ireland. More than 65.4 million pounds were re-inspected with almost 7 million pounds also tested for chemical residues and Salmonella. No public health rejections occurred.

The UK corrected findings the FSIS found in the last audit, which was conducted in 2017.

Some inspections in the UK are conducted by third-party contractors who are not government employees. Prior to the audit, FSIS “determined that the use in the United Kingdom of inspectors who are not under direct government supervision meets equivalence criteria.”

The UK “has formally delegated to contract employees the authority to conduct government inspection activities and to take enforcement measures when necessary to stop violations of food safety measures.”

Government supervisors audit the work of the contact employees at least four times a year.

USDA’s  new equivalency audit for UK meat exports means that British beef will soon be headed for the U.S.

The next step is finishing up an export deal around valued at about £66 million over the first five years.  

The UK’s Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) in partnership with DEFRA along with other organizations are negotiating with the U.S.

When those talks clear up remaining administrative details, look for UK’s beef export to America will begin.

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