Thursday, November 1, 2012

Our Growing Dependence on Uninspected Foreign Food

A blog posting by Dr. Richard Raymond, former Undersecretary for Food Safety, and an article published in Food Safety News today both highlighted data indicating that the USDA has significantly decreased inspection of foreign meat producing plants registered to import into the US (1, 2). Over the last 4 years, inspection of meat and poultry producers in countries that supply products to the US has decreased by 60%. USDA/FSIS has dropped from investigating 32 countries in 2005 to just 3 in 2011. So far this year, USDA/FSIS has inspected 11 but would not comment on further investigations for the rest of 2012 (2).

Generally, I have great confidence in our US food supply. However, when it comes to imported meat, I am not so comfortable. Unless we are talking about Northern Europe, it is hard for me to believe that it has nearly the same inspection requirements and quality control protocols as domestically produced meat. Of course, most of the potential hazards of meat can be handled with cooking, regardless of the source of the meat.

What is worrisome is that US consumer groups, animal welfare groups, and environmental groups are making it harder and harder to produce US meat. As that happens, we will be forced to import more. For example, it is estimated that buyers’ refusal to accept Lean Finely Textured Beef (AKA “Pink Slime”) resulted in the need to import 1 MILLION more beef cattle per year in order to meet the gap in supply left when that beef was not entering the human food supply. The food items that had included the Lean Finely Textured Beef still needed to be produced, and the US system simply could not increase production quickly enough to add in this additional lean beef. As a result, the foreign beef, which we have now discovered may not even have been inspected, had to be imported and substituted into the items that needed it. This is a far cry from "local production" or "know your farmer, know your food," unless you speak Portuguese, as they do in Brazil.

In Denmark they have virtually eliminated poultry production due to severe restrictions on antibiotic use. They simply were not able to financially produce the poultry themselves with all of the restrictions, so now they import most of it. Much of their poultry meat now comes from Eastern Europe, a region that was communist only 23 years ago. Danish human campylobacteriosis (a bacterial infection caused by the bacteria Campylobacter) rates have increased 20% from 60 cases per 100,000 people in 2006 to 73.1 cases per 100,000 people in 2011 (3, 4). According to Danish reports on this data, “Consumption and handling of broiler meat is assumed to be the major source of human campylobacteriosis” (2). In addition, 30% of young pigs in Denmark are now exported to be fattened in other countries then imported back into Denmark. Because of all of the new restrictions, the Danes are losing control of their meat supply.

Agriculture remains one bright spot in US trade. Recently, we have had a agricultural trade surpluses in this area (5). However, we may not maintain that surplus if farmers are forced to use production methods from the 1950’s or if they have to treat farm animals like house pets. I am not saying that we do not need to respect the animals – no one respects animals more than farmers. As a civil society, we must consider the consequences of every regulation, law, or consumer demand, not based just on our personal preference, but also on our ability to feed our friends and neighbors. Hungry neighbors are not peaceable. People gotta eat, so if producers cannot work here they will go elsewhere to produce and then import inferior products.

Overall, this change in food inspection protocol abroad raises a potential real food safety and security risk. At the rate we are going, more and more meat is being imported due to the relentless restrictions on the food animal industry in the US. The primary risk here is that we will become too dependent on imported products not be able to feed ourselves. Currently, 17% of our food supply is imported (1), and this number is rising. We are already dependent on foreign oil and consumer goods - are we going let someone else feed us too?

1. Raymond, R. (2012, November 1). “FSIS International Equivalency Audits, a budget victim?”

2. Bottemiller, H. (2012, November 1). “Investigation: USDA Quietly Eliminated 60 Percent of Foreign Meat Inspections.”

3. DANMAP 2005

4. DANMAP 2011.

5. Maday, J. (2012, January 18). “US Sees ag-trade surplus in 2011.”

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