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Trading Away Food Safety: Implementation of Trade Rules Allows USDA to Bypass U.S. Food Safety Laws While Border Inspections Drop Dramatically

July 10, 2003

New Public Citizen Report Documents How U.S. Implementation of Trade Obligations is Leading to USDA Approval of Questionable Imported Meat

WASHINGTON, D.C. – United States trade commitments under the World Trade Organization (WTO) and North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have resulted in federal food safety officials allowing imported meat onto U.S. grocery store shelves that does not meet domestic food safety standards, according to a new Public Citizen report, The WTO Comes to Dinner: U.S. Implementation of Trade Rules Bypasses Food Safety Requirements.

Under the trade pacts, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has declared the meat inspection systems of 43 countries to be equivalent to the U.S. system, even though some of these nations did not meet core requirements of U.S. law. Despite critical discrepancies, the meat imported under this process shows up on grocery shelves bearing a USDA grading sticker.

The report also reveals new numbers from the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) that demonstrate a steep drop in border inspections after a new system was implemented for checking meat imports in 2002. When the system began in the fourth quarter of 2002, there was a 65 percent drop in the rate of imported meat and poultry being inspected. On average between October 2001 and September 2002, 2.5 million pounds of meat were rejected per quarter, but in the last quarter of 2002, just 700,000 pounds were rejected. More than a million pounds of uninspected imported meat may have made it onto supermarket shelves in late 2002 with the USDA’s seal of approval.

The Public Citizen report (click here to view) is the subject of a 2:30 p.m. briefing today at the Capitol, room HC-9.

“Equivalency” is an obligation of several WTO agreements, as well as NAFTA. It is designed to allow goods produced under different rules and regulations to be imported into another country with minimal inspection at the border. Before the United States entered the WTO, the USDA required other countries to have standards equal to ours, and the agency inspected foreign plants eligible to export to this country. Now, the USDA declares other countries’ meat safety systems “equivalent” based on a review of foreign government paperwork instead of a physical inspection of all meat plants eligible to export to the United States.


“This report documents concretely that in the name of complying with WTO rules, the USDA is systematically allowing imported meat that violates the most essential U.S. food safety laws,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. “Because there are USDA labels on this imported meat, the WTO is coming to dinner with filthy meat that American consumers still think meets USDA standards.”

“The American consumer cannot assume that meat sold in the United States has met USDA standards,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “There is a disturbing pattern of country after country’s meat being declared equivalent despite being produced in plants not required to obey the same rules as U.S. plants. It’s time for Congress to protect consumers by requiring imported meat to meet U.S. standards.”

In 2000, Public Citizen began filing requests under the Freedom of Information Act for the documentation underlying meat inspection equivalency determinations for a number of countries. In response, the FSIS produced audit reports for 12 countries and allowed Public Citizen to review several files but claimed that other information was so widely dispersed that providing it would be burdensome and time-consuming. The agency demanded that Public Citizen pay more than $2,000 before gaining further access.

In 2001, the FSIS began posting the most recent audit reports and some of the ensuing correspondence on its Web site. Public Citizen’s report provides an analysis of publicly available audits for Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada and Mexico. A review of the FSIS “system” audits of these nations reveals that the agency deemed “equivalent” systems with sanitary measures that differ from FSIS policy and in some cases violate the express language of U.S. laws and regulation. For example, the U.S. law requiring meat to be inspected by independent government officials was violated by Brazil and Mexico, but they retained their eligibility to export to the United States. The USDA’s zero tolerance policy for contaminants including feces, ingesta and urine was repeatedly violated by Australia, Canada and Mexico.

The 1994 Uruguay Round Agreement Act, which made the United States a part of the WTO, made statutory changes to the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act that in 1995 resulted in minor, seemingly insignificant changes to U.S. meat and poultry inspection regulations by replacing the word “equal” with the word “equivalent.” Since 1995, the FSIS has declared the meat inspection systems of 43 nations “equivalent” and the countries eligible to export fresh meat or processed meat products into the United States, although not all 43 countries are currently exporting meat to the United States. In 2002, the amount of imported meat and poultry exceeded 4 billion pounds.

Following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the USDA and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) received money to increase border inspections, but in 2003, the FDA is projected to inspect just 1.3 percent of food imports into the United States. Also, after the USDA adopted a new system in the fourth quarter of 2002, the border inspection rate dropped from 18 percent to 6 percent for imported meat and poultry.

Public Citizen recommends in the report that Congress re-establish requirements that our trading partners maintain the same standards as the United States to be eligible to export food into this country. The organization also calls for a congressional review of recent drops in border inspection rates. And for Congress to promptly implement the country-of-origin labeling (COOL) provisions of the 2002 Farm Bill.