As officials prepare to sign the Transpacific Trade Partnership (TPP) next month, the national advocacy organization Food & Water Watch is warning that the controversial trade deal will exacerbate already flawed food safety import systems. In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Wenonah Hauter, the group’s executive director, outlined existing problems with USDA’s Food Safety Inspection System (FSIS), and called on Vilsack to strengthen its international program.

“It is unconscionable that the Obama Administration has allowed our food safety import standards to slip, particularly in light of the aggressive trade agenda it has pursued that will undoubtedly increase the volume of potentially risky imported food items coming to the U.S.,” said Hauter of her letter. “The equivalency determination process at FSIS is in shambles and will only be further undermined by the TPP.”

Secret changes

Hauter noted that FSIS has secretly changed the manner in which it conducts audits of inspection systems for imported meat, poultry and egg products. In 2012, the agency was exposed for not conducting annual on-site audits. It claimed it had changed to a "performance-based" audit system in which it rated exporting countries' food safety systems, using those ratings to dictate how frequently it would conduct audits. In late 2015, the system was secretly dropped after Canada, the United State’s largest trading partner, objected to its 2014 rating.

But the 2014 audit revealed serious shortcomings in Canada’s inspection system for meat, poultry and egg products. Some were evident in plants that use a privatized inspection scheme that FSIS found in 2006 to be "equivalent" to the U.S. inspection system. But that decision was based on a pilot project involving only five hog slaughter plants in the U.S. The implementation of that pilot project was severely criticized by USDA's Office of Inspection General in 2013. In spite of the issues raised in the Canadian audit, FSIS continued to recognize the Canadian inspection system as being equivalent.

Canada was not the only trade partner to take exception with its ratings. In December of 2015, Australian officials objected to criticisms leveled against the privatized inspection system it implemented in 2011. That inspection system was found to be "equivalent" to the U.S.’s inspection system, a decision also based on the five-plant hog slaughter pilot.

Erroneous information

“It seems that FSIS does not fully understand how the new inspection system is working in Australia, so the agency may have based its equivalency determination on erroneous information,” said Hauter. “In addition, the number of import rejections for visible and microbial contamination at ports of entry has increased since Australia moved to the privatized inspection model. Food and Water Watch has asked for a reconsideration of the equivalency determination for the new inspection system.”

China’s inspection system will also pose problems for the safety of its imports to the United States. A November 2015 communication from the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine for the People's Republic of China to FSIS revealed that the country is prepared to certify ten poultry slaughter and processing facilities so that it can export poultry to the U.S. Among the plants it intends to certify are two operated by Cargill. But FSIS has not proposed a regulation for public comment that would permit China to export its own poultry to the U.S. 

“Nothing makes less sense to us than the decision by FSIS to grant equivalency status to the poultry inspection system in the People’s Republic of China (PRC),” wrote Hauter in reference to the country’s checkered food safety history, which includes a 2008 scandal in which melamine-tainted dairy products killed six infants and hospitalized 300,000 consumers.

Poultry processing plants

PRC certified four poultry processing plants in November 2014 (one of which was subsequently delisted in March 2015) to export to the U.S. FSIS then conducted on-site audit visits of poultry processing and slaughter facilities in 2015. In November of 2015, PRC food safety officials visited the U.S in a trip underwritten by Cargill Meat Solutions.

That same month, the PRC’s Deputy Bureau Chief of Safety of Import and Export Food Products of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine sent a memo to Alfred Almanza, Deputy Undersecretary for Food Safety, responding to some of the issues raised in FSIS’s 2015 audits of the PRC’s poultry processing and slaughter inspection systems. The memo also identified five poultry processing and five poultry slaughter facilities that the PRC intended to certify as being eligible to export to the U.S. 

“The equivalency determination process has been turned into a sham,” said Hauter. “We can’t endanger U.S. consumers with sketchy imports, particularly if it’s a veiled attempt to bolster China’s lagging economy. And using a multinational corporation such as Cargill, that is already undermining our domestic poultry industry, to outsource processing in the PRC is a fig leaf that will not hide the weaknesses in China’s food safety systems.”