Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) is asking United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack to detail his department's efforts to ensure the safety of imported meat and poultry. DeLauro, a senior member of the committee that funds the USDA, has long fought to ensure imported food products are safe.
"A Food Safety News report indicates an alarming lack of transparency and dramatic change in the oversight of imported food by the FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service)," DeLauro wrote in a letter sent today. "The startling decrease of in-person audits threatens confidence in the safety of our food supply. And, the changes to FSIS' import program outside of the public eye are disturbing both in content and in appearance."
DeLauro asked Vilsack to respond with information on the audit program by December 15. Her questions to the Secretary are in the full letter, which is as follows:
November 2, 2012
The Honorable Tom Vilsack
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20250
Dear Secretary Vilsack:
I write today because of serious concerns about the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) transparency and oversight of imported meat and poultry food products.
As you know, one of the department's primary responsibilities is ensuring the safety of meat and poultry products imported for consumption in the United States. Data from the department shows that, in 2011, nearly 3.06 billion pounds of meat and poultry products were imported from 29 countries. In our global marketplace, ensuring the safety of imported meat and poultry products is critical to the public health. Most recently, Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) border inspectors identified E. coli contamination in products coming into the United States from Canada. The resulting recall was the largest recall in Canadian history.
Yet, a Food Safety News report indicates an alarming lack of transparency and dramatic change in the oversight of imported food by the FSIS. The report highlights the decreasing number of in-person audits of our trading partners, more than 60 percent since 2008, and the unannounced, fundamental changes to the process used to assure that imported meat and poultry meet our safety standards. The startling decrease of in-person audits threatens confidence in the safety of our food supply. And, the changes to FSIS' import program outside of the public eye are disturbing both in content and in appearance. As such, I am requesting responses to the following questions by December 15, 2012.
* How many in-person audits does the agency intend to conduct in 2012?
* Why did the USDA dramatically decrease the number of in-person audits of foreign meat and poultry plants over the past four years? Why has the number of in-person audits varied from 20 in 2009 to 3 in 2011? Have budgetary constraints or considerations played a role in the department's decision to decrease the number of in-person audits of foreign meat and poultry plants?
* Since 2008, how has the department determined the number of in-person audits and the specific countries to audit each year? How does the department intend to make these determinations in future years? Have these determinations changed from how the department made these decisions in years prior to 2008?
* How is the cost of those audits integrated into the department's budget request for FSIS? Has FSIS requested or received less funding for in-person audits in recent years?
* Why was the department's apparent fundamental shift in in-person oversight - from nearly-annual in-person audits to irregular at best - not publicly announced or open to comment and review?
* What is the department's long-term vision for in-person audits of foreign meat and poultry plants for trading partners that have received equivalency? How frequently will those in-person audits be conducted?
* What is the process for ensuring timely public posting of both plant audits and audit reports? How long will it take from the time an audit is conducted for the audit report to be available to the public?
Thank you in advance for your prompt attention to these concerns and questions. I look forward to our continued work together to ensure the safety of our food supply.
Rosa L. DeLauro
Member of Congres