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Letter to Secretary Vilsack

Letter

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) today urged the Administration to ensure American food safety standards are not weakened by pending agreements with Canada. Details of the Regulatory Cooperation Council and Beyond the Border initiatives are currently being negotiated between the two governments. There are significant differences between the two countries' food safety systems and easing the way for Canadian products to bypass traditional safeguards and enter U.S. markets could put public health at risk.

"Just this past September, Canada initiated what would become the largest beef recall in its history," DeLauro wrote to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, OMB Acting Director Jeffrey Zients and John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism. "Any attempt to achieve greater alignment with the regulatory approaches of the two systems would have the potential to weaken public health protections in the United States and impede USDA's ability to prevent foodborne illness…facilitating trade should not supersede public health protections as would be the case in this situation with trade taking priority over preventing domestic foodborne illness"

DeLauro is a senior member of the committee responsible for funding the Agriculture Department and a longtime champion for food safety. She was one of the leaders responsible for passing the Food Safety Modernization Act, which became law in 2011.

The full letter is as follows:

December 13, 2012

The Honorable Tom Vilsack
Secretary
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20501

Jeffrey Zients
Acting Director
Office of Management and Budget
725 15th Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20503

John Brennan
Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism
Homeland Security Council
Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Room 212
1650 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20502

Dear Secretary Vilsack, Acting Director Zients, and Mr. Brennan:

I write to urge you to exclude food safety-related measures from the Regulatory Cooperation Council (RCC) and Beyond the Border (BtB) initiatives. Given the significance of recent food safety concerns in Canada, it is apparent that the goals of the RCC and BtB initiatives conflict with our efforts to prevent foodborne illness. Thus, it is critical that food safety measures not be included in these initiatives.

As you know, the RCC establishes several initiatives where the U.S. and Canada will seek greater alignment of regulatory approaches. With regard to food safety, the joint action plan aims to: develop common approaches to food safety; enhance equivalence agreements for meat safety systems; and, streamline the certification requirements for meat and poultry. Recent food safety recalls in Canada indicate that there may be underlying problems within the Canadian system that would endanger foodborne illness prevention efforts in the United States if such a greater realignment of regulatory approaches is pursued.

Just this past September, Canada initiated what would become the largest beef recall in its history. The recall involved more than 2,000 products from XL Foods in Alberta, including an estimated 2.5 million pounds of beef products that had been exported to the United States. This recall was linked to 18 E. coli cases across Canada. Prior to the recall announcement, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) alerted the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to at least three positive samples for E. coli O157:H7 in XL Foods products between September 4 and September 12. Given the three positive samples in such a short period, it is clear that the plant experienced a "high-event period' that it was unable to identify.

In addition to these concerns, there also are key differences between the U.S. and Canadian food safety systems. It would therefore be distressing if regulatory alignment goals lowering standards are achieved under RCC and BtB. For instance:

* The United States has zero tolerance for Listeria monocytogenes in all Ready-to-Eat products and product contact surfaces, while the Canadian system allows for a tolerance level of less than 100 colony forming units. As you know, listeriosis is a serious infection that may be caused by consuming contaminated foods like deli meats and hot dogs. This grave foodborne illness primarily affects pregnant women, older adults, and newborns. Moreover, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that hospitalization rates and case fatality rates for listeriosis are among the highest seen for foodborne illnesses.

* Earlier this month, nearly 5,000 pounds of frozen butter chicken imported from Canada were recalled because the product may have been contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes. Although the product is frozen, it is considered "Ready-to-Eat' as defined by Canadian standards. While it is obvious that frozen products need to be heated before being consumed, there are non-frozen products that require additional cooking but can still be described as "Ready-to-Eat' by the Canadian definition. Meanwhile, USDA defines "Ready-to-Eat' as products that can be consumed without additional cooking or preparation, as the term implies to consumers.

* In the United States, before a meat or poultry facility is permitted to ship its product into commerce, it is required to review its hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) records to ensure that all of the plant's critical control points have been met. Canada does not require this pre-shipment review of a plant's HACCP records.

* Perhaps most importantly, FSIS requires a continuous inspection presence at meat and poultry slaughter and processing facilities. Canada does not require a daily or continuous inspection presence at its meat and poultry slaughter facilities. This significant difference could explain how the "high-event period' at XL Foods went undetected for an extended period of time until identified by FSIS testing.

Clearly there are important differences between the U.S. and Canadian food safety systems as it relates to meat and poultry products. Any attempt to achieve greater alignment with the regulatory approaches of the two systems would have the potential to weaken public health protections in the United States and impede USDA's ability to prevent foodborne illness.

In addition to the RCC, the BtB Action Plan outlines joint priorities for achieving a new long-term security partnership that would, among other things, promote trade facilitation and economic growth. While enhancing economic ties between the United States and Canada is important, I have long maintained that facilitating trade should not supersede public health protections as would be the case in this situation with trade taking priority over preventing domestic foodborne illness.

It is alarming that the BtB Action Plan establishes a pilot program that would allow a Canadian establishment to ship fresh beef and pork products directly to an FSIS-inspected facility, bypassing border inspection. The XL Foods recall underscores the importance of border testing and demonstrates that there are questions as to whether the Canadian food safety system for meat is truly equivalent to the U.S. system.

When considering the goals of the RCC and BtB initiatives, it is clear that important food safety measures in the U.S. could be diminished, or even sacrificed, if these initiatives proceed as currently planned. As such, I strongly urge you to prevent any food safety-related measures from being included in these initiatives.

Sincerely,

Rosa L. DeLauro
Member of Congress


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