Food & Water Watch, the American consumer advocacy group, has called on the United States Department of Agriculture to review its decision to allow Australia’s newly privatised meat inspection system to be considered equivalent to that of the US.
In a letter to agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack, the group pointed to repeated discoveries of meat imported from Australia that was contaminated with fecal material and digestive tract contents.
“Documents from USDA and Australian officials reveal that this is not an isolated problem,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “The repeated problems with products coming from Australia in 2012 show that this is a systemic problem and that privatised meat inspection in Australia is not working.”
The group claimed that one letter from a USDA official to Australian food safety counterparts summed up the problems in imported products from Australia: “Within the last month, there have been five additional zero tolerance [fecal material/ingesta] point-of-entry violations in four separate establishments, including one establishment that had repetitive violations during this month [December], as well as earlier this calendar year.”
Criticism on the home front
Food & Water Watch also cited correspondence with Dr John Langbridge, veterinary counsel to the Australian Meat Industry Council, who wrote: “[Australian] plants supplying meat to the US will need to review their dressing procedures, their carcass and meat hygiene monitoring procedures and their interpretation of ‘zero tolerance’ defects given these [December] rejections.”
Langbridge added that he believed the Australian Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) was concerned that the American authorities would downgrade its recognition of the country’s meat production systems from low risk, which in turn would increase the rate of port-of-entry sampling for exports.
According to the veterinary counsel, DAFF is considering taking retaliatory measures against US meat products exported to Australia by tightening up on inspection procedures at Australian ports.
New Zealand questioned
Food & Water Watch also brought New Zealand into the fray by demanding that the US Department of Agriculture reveal what measures the country has taken to resolve its own port-of-entry rejections.
Hunter said: “US consumers should not be endangered by unsafe imports from Australia or from any other country exporting to the United States.
“It is time for USDA to revoke the equivalency determinations of privatised meat inspection schemes, and to abandon its attempts to privatise inspection here in the United States.”
Australasian meat exports to North America have undergone a torrid time recently, with an outbreak of Australian and New Zealand beef linked to an E. coli outbreak in Canada that resulted in five consumers falling sick.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency investigated whether beef imported from the countries and used in the burgers could have been the source, but last week the inspectors confirmed the meat met all import certification and testing requirements.
There was also no confirmation of illness in Australia or New Zealand from E.coli with the same genetic fingerprint.