Exclusive: US sees spike in shipments of contaminated Australian meat – Documents | World news

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. food safety officials have blocked a growing number of meat shipments from Australia since 2019 over fecal contamination, straining trade relations between the two countries, according to documents reviewed by Reuters.

Labor and food safety groups blame the problem on an Australian system that increasingly allows companies to inspect their own meat, replacing government inspectors. Similar efforts to privatize inspections are underway in other major meat-producing countries, including the United States.

Ten shipments of meat from Australia, the second largest foreign supplier of meat to the United States, have been refused by the United States Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) due to contamination by faeces or other digestive material in 2020, up from one in 2019 and four in 2018, according to internal U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data included in the documents.

Canada and New Zealand, two other major suppliers of meat to the United States, each had only one rejected shipment for contamination with feces or other digestive material in 2020, according to internal data. Mexico, another major supplier, did not have one.

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Three more Australian meat shipments were rejected for the same reason in the first two months of 2021, compared to one from New Zealand and none from Canada or Mexico, the data showed. More recent figures were not included in documents reviewed by Reuters, and USDA declined to provide them when asked.

The companies that exported the rejected Australian shipments are JBS Australia, Thomas Foods, Fletcher International Exports, Australian Lamb Co. and V&V Walsh. Reuters was able to identify the companies by crossing internal data detailing the date and reasons for the releases with publicly available USDA data detailing the dates and names of the companies, but excluding the reasons for the releases.

None of the companies responded to requests for comment.

Eating meat contaminated with feces or other digestive material can lead to fatal illness caused by E. coli and other pathogens. Since U.S. food safety inspectors only physically examine or test a subset of imported meat, the rejections suggest that other contaminated shipments may have crossed the U.S. border, according to reports. food industry experts.

“This probably means you have a lot of contamination that isn’t visible,” said Dr. Barbara Kowalcyk, assistant professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology at Ohio State University.

FSIS played down the rejection data in a statement to Reuters, saying its import inspection process “gives confidence in the safety of Australian products entering US trade.” The US Food Inspection Agency added that only 0.6% of Australian meat it physically examined in 2020 was rejected. He did not provide a figure for the fraction of all imports that was examined.

Australia’s Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment (DAWE) told Reuters in a statement that “Australian non-compliances remain very low – both relative to the total volume of meat and meat products exported by Australia, and compared to competing trading partners “.

The rising rate of rejections by the United States has become a concern for Australian and American government officials, according to internal memos reviewed by Reuters.

Jason Lucas, deputy secretary of the meat exports branch of DAWE Australia, wrote in a March 2021 memo that the agency sees a “continuing trend” in the detection of feces and digestive material on shipped meat. in the United States, despite an October. agency’s 2020 effort to curb such releases.

He wrote that the spike was highlighted by US food safety officials as a concern and warned that a continued trend of rejections “could result in the imposition of sanctions by the United States, loss of confidence in the government. Australian export system and / or potential loss of market access for the United States. “

DAWE declined to answer questions about the memo Lucas wrote or make it available for comment.

Australia shipped around 760 million pounds of meat to the United States in 2019, 18% of total United States meat imports, primarily in the form of lamb, mutton, veal and beef.

MEAT COMPANIES INSPECTION

The rise in rejected meat shipments highlights potential problems in Australia’s domestic inspection regime, which has shifted from a government-run system to a company-run system. Other large producers, including the United States, Canada and New Zealand, are moving towards similar systems.

Under these semi-privatized programs, regulators allow meat companies to replace their own workers with government employees to inspect carcasses as they move up the processing chain. The change aims to speed up operations and save business and government money without compromising quality.

The Australian Export Meat Inspection System (AEMIS) was developed jointly by the meat industry and the government and introduced in 2011. In 2019, an industry report found that half of the meat factories exporting in the countries had adopted the system.

In the early years of AEMIS, a wave of American shipments rejected for contamination resulted in a temporary ban on imports of Australian meat to the United States in 2013.

Critics of the inspections run by the company say the system can lead to more contamination of meat, as factory workers are often not as experienced as government inspectors and may also feel pressure from their workers. employers to prioritize speed over safety.

Minutes from a June 2021 meeting of a meat export committee within DAWE, for example, detailed an incident at an Australian meat packing plant in which “6 washers and 6 employees with scrapers ”were ordered by their company to scrape the feces from the contaminated meat. – a violation of food safety rules.

FSIS said the only accepted method for removing contaminated tissue from cattle carcasses is to cut it.

The Australian Meat Industry Council, a trade association, did not respond to a request for comment.

Brooke Muscat, national vice president of the Australian Community and Public Sector Union – which represents government inspectors and opposes the semi-privatized system – says government inspection jobs have since halved the introduction of AEMIS. She predicts that Australian slaughterhouses will have replaced almost all federal inspectors with company employees by the end of 2022.

“While they’ve announced more outsourcing of meat inspection, we’re saying you’re going to see an increase in rejections in the United States,” Muscat said. “And it is happening. “

Australia’s AEMIS inspection system has its roots in the American meat packaging industry, which has been pushing for less slaughter regulations for decades.

In 1997, the USDA launched a pilot program that allowed several pork factories to further control their own carcass inspection. In 2014 the program was extended to poultry factories and in 2018 to more pork factories. The agency also granted a waiver to at least one beef factory to replace some government inspectors with factory workers.

Several consumer, worker and food safety groups have sued the USDA for the program, arguing that the agency has failed to prove that semi-private inspection is adequate or safe for workers.

Between 2012 and 2019, national recalls of meat and poultry products increased by more than 50%, according to publicly available USDA data. Class I recalls, used when there is the greatest risk to human health, increased by 110%. In 2020, the number of recalls was 75% lower, but almost 90% of recalls were Class I.

The USDA did not respond to a request for comment on U.S. contamination data on Tuesday. FSIS said it could not immediately provide data on rejections of US meat exports from other countries.

Some watch groups say recent denials at Australia’s borders highlight the potential dangers of a wider expansion of privatized inspections. Zach Corrigan, a lawyer at Food & Water Watch, a U.S. environmental and consumer rights group, called the rejections “more evidence that these semi-privatized inspection systems that allow companies to inspect their own meat products are ineffective “.

(Reporting by Leah Douglas; editing by Richard Valdmanis and Brian Thevenot)

Copyright 2021 Thomson Reuters.

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