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Last Updated

10 Jul 2003

Source: New York Times, July 10, 2003

Meat Inspections Declining, Impact of Policy Is Contested


WASHINGTON, July 9 Federal border inspections of imported meat and poultry are declining as Congress is calling for increased surveillance to prevent bioterrorism and improve the safety of meat consumed in the nation.

The Department of Agriculture began a new inspection system last fall and reduced the percentage of meat crossing the border that is inspected to 6 percent from 17 percent, department records show.

"Yes, the amount of meat inspected is less, but the meat we inspect is inspected more thoroughly," said Karen Stuck, administrative assistant for international affairs at the food safety inspection service at the department.

Representative Rosa L. DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat and founding member of the House food safety caucus, said today that this was the wrong approach, as national security has been made a priority and consumers are still recoiling from record recalls of potentially contaminated meat last year.

"I'm speechless," Ms. DeLauro said. "With Sept. 11, we have an added responsibility to do more not less inspections and to do them all thoroughly."

To combat the threat of bioterrorism, Congress passed legislation requiring better registration of foreign importers and prior notification of shipments. But Ms. DeLauro said lawmakers had not anticipated a drop in meat inspections.

Steven Cohen, spokesman for the inspection service, said that after Sept. 11, 2001, border inspections included tests of foreign meat for certain substances associated with bioterrorism. Mr. Cohen said, however, that he was prohibited from disclosing the kind of tests.

The Department of Homeland Security has stepped up inspections of goods and people on the border and at overseas ports. Inspectors are using new equipment to screen travelers for radiological material and will soon use new computer equipment that recognizes fingerprints and other features to verify the identifies of foreign visitors as they enter and leave the country.

Gordon Johndroe, the spokesman for the security department, said the reduction in meat inspections did not conflict with his department's goals.

"We are confident in the inspection process that the agriculture department has implemented," Mr. Johndroe said.

The reduction in border inspections is included in a report on the effect of trade rules on national food safety requirements to be released on Thursday by Public Citizen, a consumer group.

Mary Bottari, author of the report and an analyst with Public Citizen, said it was unclear how the Department of Agriculture could justify sampling far less meat when the amount of meat imported into the United States had increased to 4 billion pounds in 2002 from 2.5 billion pounds in 1997.

"They may be testing three pounds of meat very well, but how can we be assured that this is the correct amount of meat?" Ms. Bottari said.

Ms. Stuck of the food safety service said that meat was among the most highly regulated commodities and that while less meat would be inspected on the border it would go through far more tests.

With the new inspection approach, she said, she had a "95 percent confidence level" that any violation of meat safety rules would be detected on the border.

With less meat inspected, the amount of meat rejected has dropped to 712,744 pounds from 2.1 million pounds, according to the agriculture agency's last two quarterly reports.

"This certainly looks like reduced protection," Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America, said. "I would hope at the least that they have asked the National Academy of Science to review the statistical basis for what they are doing."

The United States certifies countries that export meat and poultry here, following an elaborate examination to determine whether a foreign meat inspection system is equivalent to the system used in the United States. That certification is followed by annual audits and random visits to foreign plants.

The report by Public Citizen strongly questioned that system and recommended that Congress require that these foreign meat plants have the same inspection system used in the United States.

But Dan Murphy, vice president for public affairs at the American Meat Institute, an industry group, said the certification process was "not a simple manner of rubber stamping any country's protocol and system but a torturous process that works well."

"We agree that in terms of biosecurity it certainly would be better if there were more resources on the border for inspecting meat, but the integrity of the system isn't based on the spot-checking on the border," Mr. Murphy said.

The food safety service has not increased its corps of 75 food safety inspectors at the borders. After Sept. 11, 2001, the service added 20 liaison inspectors; they play a surveillance role but do not inspect meat at ports.