USDA Ignores Possibility of Contaminated Meat Imported From Mexico
Congressional Probe Sought On Eve of Presidential Visit to Mexico
WASHINGTON — According to official internal reports, about one-third of the Mexican meat slaughtering and processing plants inspected by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) were so ill-equipped, dirty, or otherwise in violation of USDA safety rules that they were barred from exporting to the U.S. However, senior USDA officials rejected the recommendation of USDA’s inspectors to immediately audit “Mexico’s entire meat inspection system.”
“President Bush should urge President Fox to improve Mexico’s meat inspection system to assure consumers that the safety of their food is not being sacrificed on the altar of international trade,” said Benjamin Cohen, Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) Senior Staff Attorney.
Of 37 Mexican plants authorized to export to the U.S., ten were inspected by the USDA in the spring of 1999. Because USDA found serious deficiencies, it inspected 15 additional plants that November. Eight of those 25 plants — 32 percent — flunked USDA’s inspections because of such violations as fecal contamination, not having hand soap at the workers’ hand-washing facilities, meat being stored under insanitary conditions, failure to sanitize contaminated equipment, and failure to conduct bacteria tests on a random basis. The USDA inspectors also found serious deficiencies in the Mexican laboratories that are supposed to test the meat for deadly Salmonella bacteria.
The USDA inspectors also said that prior to the second audit the Mexican government had assured the USDA that it had corrected the problems revealed by the first audit. However, the second set of USDA inspectors concluded that, in fact, Mexico had failed to correct three of the six major deficiencies in its inspection system.
The USDA audit team “strongly” recommended that a “follow-up audit of Mexico’s entire meat inspection system be organized and carried out, within three months, to ensure that these serious issues are being satisfactorily resolved.”
But instead of conducting an audit, the USDA again accepted the Mexican government’s assurances that the problems had been corrected. USDA announced on December 14, 1999, that it had decided that Mexico has a meat-inspection system that is “equivalent” to USDA’s standards for domestic plants. Had USDA concluded that the Mexican system was not “equivalent” to ours, Mexico could not export meat to the United States.
In letters sent to the Senate and House Appropriations Committees, CSPI urged Congress to order the USDA either to audit all the plants in a particular country or to stop imports from the unaudited plants when its audits reveal a significant proportion of unsafe meat and poultry plants.
In fiscal year 1999 the United States imported 11 million pounds of meat from Mexico.
Contact Jeff Cronin (jcronin[at]cspinet.org) or Ariana Stone (astone[at]cspinet.org).