U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) has responded to a January 25, 2013, Federal Register notice describing a “new” Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) method of conducting “ongoing equivalence verifications of the regulatory systems of countries that export meat, poultry, or processed egg products to the United States.”

According to DeLauro’s letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack, “it seems that FSIS fundamentally changed the process used to assess ongoing equivalency with our trade partners without publishing a single public notice in the Federal Register on the revisions or seeking public comment on the proposed changes. It appears that the agency has been implementing and refining these changes for several years.” She was particularly disturbed that FSIS has failed to disclose these changes in budgetary justification documents submitted to Congress since 2009. DeLauro also claimed in the letter that FSIS has exhibited “indifference to the advisory committees” that Congress established “to advise USDA on food safety policy.”

DeLauro, who is a senior member of the House subcommittee that funds USDA, demands answers to a series of questions including whether the agency will publish a risk assessment on the changes, what impact the changes have had on the department’s budget and how FSIS uses “the expertise of its external advisory committees to inform its policy decisions on contemporary food safety issues.” Her concerns have been echoed by representatives of food safety advocacy organizations, including the Consumer Federation of America and Food & Water Watch whose executive director reportedly said, “[I]t is time for the Obama administration to fund this vital consumer program adequately and stop trying to rationalize the ways it has weakened it. Publishing a Federal Register notice four years after the fact and requesting comments on the new policy is both futile and insulting.”

Comments on the FSIS notice are requested by March 26, 2013. Among other matters, the policy involves on-site system audits once every three years, self-reporting and port-of-entry reinspections. According to the notice, FSIS shifted in the late 1990s from an emphasis on food establishment inspections “to assessing a country’s food regulatory system.” See CQ News and Rep. Rosa DeLauro’s News Release, January 25, 2013.