WASHINGTON - According to official internal reports, numerous meat and poultry plants in six out of 15 countries audited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1998 and 1999 were so ill-equipped, dirty, or otherwise in violation of department rules that they were barred from exporting to the U.S. However, USDA apparently took no action in five of those countries either to inspect or stop imports from other, uninspected plants.

   Earlier this month, the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) asked the Senate and House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees to investigate why the USDA was not adequately protecting American consumers from potentially contaminated imported meat.

   “USDA’s failure to inspect every plant in five countries where it found some plants unacceptable suggests that USDA considers public health less important than foreign trade,” said Benjamin Cohen, CSPI Senior Staff Attorney.

   Plants suspended from exporting meat or poultry to the U.S. had such violations as hair and fecal contamination on meat, failure to conduct bacteria tests on a random basis, peeling paint, lack of handwashing facilities for workers, and no government inspectors.

  • Mexico had the highest proportion of unacceptable plants. Of 37 plants authorized to export to the U.S., ten were inspected in 1999, and five were determined “unacceptable” and decertified. Another 27 were not inspected.
  • In France, seven of the 19 plants inspected were decertified. Another 17 plants were not audited. USDA inspectors found that France’s inspection system had “serious deficiencies.”
  • In Finland, USDA inspected all seven plants eligible to export meat to the U.S. USDA concluded that three did not have “adequate controls in place to prevent, detect, control and correct product contamination/adulteration of meat products.”
  • Denmark had one plant decertified out of the 11 audited. Another 89 plants eligible to export to the U.S. were not audited.
  • Two out of 14 Brazilian plants were decertified. Another seven were not inspected.
  • In Uruguay, one plant out of the 12 inspected was deemed “unacceptable.” Nevertheless, USDA concluded that the “meat inspection system of Uruguay was found to have effective controls to ensure that product destined for export to the United States was produced under conditions equivalent to those which FSIS [USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service] requires in domestic establishments.” Four additional exporting plants were not inspected.

   USDA inspected 147 meat and poultry plants out of a total of 1,066 plants in the 15 countries in 1998 and the first six months of 1999. In five of the countries having less than eight plants each, USDA audited all plants eligible to export to the United States. In the remaining ten countries USDA audited a random sample of plants. In the year beginning October 1, 1998, the six countries with decertified plants exported 279 million pounds of meat and poultry to the U.S. It is not known whether those imports caused any illnesses.

    On December 14, 1999, more than six months after the audits were reported, USDA announced that the six countries with suspended plants (along with 26 other countries) had meat and poultry inspection systems “equivalent” — though not necessarily identical — to USDA safety standards for U.S. plants.

   “Americans need greater protection from contaminated imported meat and poultry,” said Cohen. “While USDA has been strengthening inspection systems in American meat and poultry plants, it has been all too lax regarding foreign plants. With thousands of Americans dying and millions being sickened from eating contaminated food, USDA must do a better job.”