A new report from USDA's Office of the Inspector General found that the administration failed to "timely address serious concerns with the Canadian Inspection system even though high-level agency officials documented the potential for compromising public health."
The OIG report revealed that three critical U.S. food safety standards are not followed in Canadian meat and poultry inspections: meat inspections are not conducted daily, Canada lacked adequate sanitation controls and inspections fail to sample finished products for a deadly food borne pathogen called Listeria monocytogenes. Listeria monocytogenes is known to cause a sometimes fatal form of food poisoning in pregnant women, the elderly, and people with a weakened immune system.
Since 2003, roughly 700 million pounds of meat and poultry did not receive daily inspection, and 261 million pounds were not subject to Listeria testing. This meat entered U.S. commerce despite internal USDA warnings that year raising serious concerns about Canada's inspections of meat and poultry. In a November 2003 memorandum to the Agriculture Secretary, the FSIS Administrator and Under Secretary for Food Safety identified "serious concerns" with the Canadian Inspection system and that these concerns had the "potential for compromising public health."
USDA then planned an enforcement review for fiscal year 2004 to determine how to move forward and if USDA should suspend inspection operations in all certified establishments. Despite this, no action was taken by USDA, the proposed enforcement review was "indefinitely postponed," and the food safety concerns remained unaddressed even as of June 2005 - almost two years later.
A release from Senate Agriculture Ranking Member Tom Harkin says USDA has also not treated all countries the same when enforcing U.S. food standards. USDA delisted and no longer allowed export product from Belgium in July 2003 and Australia in June 2004 when it was determined these countries did not meet U.S. food safety standards. According to the OIG report, USDA's "actions regarding Canadian processing establishments were not consistent with how the agency treated similarly situated countries."
According to an Associated Press article, "daily inspections have been done at processing plants since late summer," says Canadian Food Inspection Agency Director of Food of Animal Origin Bill Anderson. Depite that Canada's tests for listeria are internationally recognized, Anderson says inspectors have switched to the U.S. approach of testing the finished products.
AP says USDA doesn't expect a final decision on whether Canada's system is sufficient until 2007.
"USDA seems to have a 'make it up as we go' attitude in determining which country's food safety standards match those established by U.S. law," Harkin says. "That is unacceptable and I urge the Department to quickly take the necessary steps to make sure all meat imports live up to health standards established under U.S. law."