House Votes to Halt Meat Imports By March 2000 Unless Foreign Inspections Certified Equivalent to U.S.

USDA poultry inspector at work

WASHINGTON - By a unanimous voice vote, the U.S. House of Representatives today approved legislation ordering the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to stop the importation, by March 1, 2000, of meat or poultry from countries whose meat inspection system is not “equivalent” to the U.S. inspection system.

The legislation comes on the heels of a charge by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) that — contrary to recent USDA Congressional testimony — the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the USDA has not actually determined that foreign meat inspection systems provide a level of inspection forSalmonella “equivalent” to the U.S. inspection system.

The legislation was an amendment, offered by Rep. Carrie P. Meek (D-Fl), to the FY 2000 appropriations bill for the Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies.

“We applaud Congresswoman Meek’s leadership in ensuring the safety of imported meat. It’s unfortunate that Congress had to step in to get USDA to enforce U.S. food-safety laws,” said Benjamin Cohen, senior staff attorney for CSPI, a nonprofit consumer-advocacy organization.

On April 28, 1999, USDA representatives told the House Subcommittee on Livestock and Horticulture that “not one pound of imported products is permitted entry into the U.S. unless it has undergone inspection in a system certified by FSIS as equivalent to the FSIS inspection system.” However, according to documents acquired by CSPI from FSIS, the USDA is allowing imports of meat and poultry from 35 countries without all the information needed to determine whether their Salmonella testing standards are equivalent to the U.S. standards.

Salmonella bacteria can cause diarrhea and systemic infections that can be fatal to infants, very young children, the elderly, and individuals with compromised immune systems. As many as 3.8 million infections occur each year in the United States. In July 1996, the Clinton Administration announced new rules forSalmonella testing that were designed to combat such problems.

Prior to 1994, the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act required that imported meat and poultry be subjected to the same safety standards as that produced domestically. Article 4 of the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures — ratified by Congress in 1994 — requires that countries permit food imports if information supplied by the foreign government shows that its food-safety inspection system is “equivalent” to the importing country’s.

“USDA’s failure to determine whether foreign meat inspection systems are ‘equivalent’ to U.S. law indicates that trade agreements involving food safety may be unworkable. It is ironic that while the Clinton Administration touts its food-safety initiative, it has failed to apply some of the most important new rules to imports,” stated Bruce Silverglade, CSPI director of legal affairs. “We hope the Administration supports amendments to the SPS Agreement this November when the U.S. hosts a meeting of WTO ministers.”