The Inspector General at the USDA has agreed to an investigation request made by three Senate Agriculture Committee members to pursue a probe into senatorsâ€™ concerns that the Bush Administrationâ€™s Agriculture Department "...did not follow appropriate safety measures sometime in the fall of 2003, in allowing expanded Canadian beef imports into the United States."
"Iâ€™m pleased that the Inspector General will look into this matter," says Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D. and one of the members who requested the investigation. "It is simply unfair that certain meatpackers and the Canadians had private knowledge about special permits granted under reduced food safety standards while the American public was kept in the dark."
Inspector General Phyllis Fong, in her letter to Daschle and two other members of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Tom Harkin of Iowa and Mark Dayton of Minn., says, "In response to your request, we have initiated several actions. We will review the USDAâ€™s actions pertaining to the importation of Canadian beef products, including its use of risk mitigation measures, following the Departmentâ€™s regulatory action and policy announcement of August 8, 2003." The letter also states that, "We will conduct interviews of USDA officials and review relevant agency records as part of this inquiry."
"Government accountability is the first step in making a genuine effort to improve our handling of these critical food safety and border protection issues," Daschle says.
When the senators called for the investigation on April 24, they did so in an effort to determine why, after the discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or Mad Cow Disease, in Canadian cattle, Bush Administration officials relaxed food safety standards on imported, high-risk beef products. The Administration took these steps without informing Congress or the public.
In their letter to Fong, the senators demanded to know why USDA disregarded two important food safety standards â€“ one requiring that brain and spinal tissue of U.S.-bound Canadian beef be removed before shipping to the U.S., and another stipulating that the beef must be processed in facilities that are used only for the slaughter of animals eligible for export to the U.S.
"These dramatic policy changes created a risk of cross-contamination in these facilities and increased the possibility that BSE could be introduced into the United States with these imports," the senators wrote.
The senators say in the July 24 letter that, "An investigation along with public congressional hearings are needed to explore these breaches of the public trust in an effort to learn exactly why these actions were taken and to help ensure they are not repeated."