R-CALF USA believes the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) announcement that effective today it will increase testing of Canadian meat products for E. coli O157:H7 is a good start, but the agency must go further.
"FSIS has proposed to double the current rate of testing, but based on FSIS' current testing rate of only about 11 percent of imported meat, that would still amount to less than one quarter of imported Canadian meat being scrutinized, and to us, that's inadequate," said R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard. "Canada has a problem with E. coli, and USDA has known about lax inspections in Canada for years. Unfortunately it took a disaster before the agency took action, and USDA's announcement is just a small step toward improving the situation."
Bullard pointed out that in 2003, and again in 2005, USDA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) found that some of Canada's meatpacking plants had insufficient sanitation controls and likely were not meeting U.S. "equivalent" standards, including not requiring daily inspection coverage at slaughtering plants.
"FSIS is responsible for ensuring compliance with food safety measures, and these recent E-coli failures by FSIS demonstrate that USDA's assumptions that it can properly perform the risk mitigation measures to prevent BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) from entering the U.S. food supply are unjustified," Bullard asserted.
"The United States should require that Canada and other importing countries meet identical - not equivalent - food safety standards that we have here in the U.S., as this is the only way to ensure that corners are not being cut," Bullard added. "Second, the United States should discontinue its reliance on self-inspections by processing plants under the current HACCP system and begin performing regular government inspections to assure compliance."
"Supposedly, USDA knew about this E-coli problem from a particular Canadian plant for at least 23 days before they took any action, and a lot of people here got sick," said R-CALF USA Region VIII Director Dave Hutchins. "Congress should conduct a thorough investigation of this incident to find out what in the world is going on.
"By the time the Topps recall was announced, we're talking almost a month here that USDA knew about this E-coli problem and did nothing," he continued. "USDA knows darn well that most of that hamburger had already been eaten. That's really not a recall at all.
"Given this and other serious problems with contaminated food imports, now is certainly not the time for USDA to begin allowing imports of Canadian beef derived from cattle of any age and older Canadian cattle born after March 1, 1999, before we know with scientific certainty that Canada's BSE problem is under control," Hutchins concluded. "Even USDA admits these products from older cattle are higher risk for BSE. It makes no sense at all."
"What is most appalling is that USDA wants to allow these higher risk imports from Canada without first implementing the minimal risk mitigation measures recommended by the OIE (World Organization for Animal Health)," said R-CALF USA Marketing Committee Co-Chair Dennis Thornsberry. "The OIE has encouraged the U.S. to strengthen its feed ban by banning high risk tissues from all animal feed to prevent the spread of BSE, but USDA - cavalierly - says this isn't necessary."
"USDA's refusal to meet even minimal international standards raises serious questions about the agency's commitment to protect the safety of imported products," said R-CALF USA Region II Director Randy Stevenson, who also co-chairs the group's marketing committee. "USDA is clearly favoring trade over food safety. Not only do we need immediate implementation of country-of-origin labeling (COOL), Congress or the courts should force USDA to withdraw its OTM (over 30 months) Rule, scheduled to take effect Nov. 19, that would allow products at high risk for BSE into the United States."
"It seems to me that the rate of recalls of imported meat is going up in frequency at the same time the rate of imports is ramping up," said R-CALF USA Trade Committee Co-Chair Eric Nelson. "These problems should serve as a wake-up call to USDA that it's time to strengthen our own feed ban, improve our meat inspection services, and certainly ramp up inspections of imported food. USDA should not be allowed to continue kowtowing to the packers that do the importing, while ignoring the right thing to do for consumers."
Note: To view a copy of the FSIS letter to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, visit the "International Trade" link at www.r-calfusa.com, or contact R-CALF USA Communications Coordinator Shae Dodson.