There is an increased risk to public health from imported meat and poultry products because of inconsistent audits conducted by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. This is the conclusion reached by the department’s Office of Inspector General based on a recent evaluation of FSIS’ equivalency assessments of exporting countries.

Background on Equivalency

In order for countries to export meat, poultry, catfish, or egg products to the US, they must demonstrate that their food safety inspection system is equivalent to the US system. This equivalency determination process involves an analysis of a country’s legal and regulatory food safety structure, as well as an initial on-site audit to ensure the food safety system offers a similar level of public health protection as the US system.

OIC Findings & Recommendations

Once an equivalency determination has been made for a particular country, FSIS then conducts periodic on-site audits to evaluate and verify that equivalency can be maintained. This is an important component of the process, and the part that was subject to the OIG review.

The USDA OIG found that FSIS did not consistently audit equivalent countries because agency officials failed to follow policies and procedures when selecting the countries for the ongoing verification audits. When audits were conducted, OIG noted that FSIS officials had not consistently performed, completed, or documented audit procedures. OIG also found that FSIS procedures for conducting ongoing equivalence verification audits did not include corrective actions in response to prior audit recommendations.

Overall, OIG recommended that FSIS strengthen its oversight of the equivalence process and revise its guidance and management control manual for conducting ongoing equivalence verification audits.

Specifically, OIG made the following eight recommendations to FSIS:

  • Develop and document how foreign countries are selected for ongoing equivalence verification audits, as part of its planning process;
  • Update agency directives to its personnel to include more detailed instructions regarding the requirements of conducting ongoing equivalence verification audits;
  • Develop and implement guidance to foreign countries to obtain FSIS equivalence determination prior to implementing Individual Sanitary Measures;
  • Develop and implement guidance to foreign countries to notify FSIS of delistments and the reasons for them;
  • Revise FSIS policies to include procedures for documenting deviations from visiting the minimum number of establishments as part of the ongoing equivalence verification audit and ensure that this documentation provides sufficient evidence that the establishments visited provided a reasonable basis for concluding that a country’s food safety system remained equivalent;
  • Revise FSIS policies to include procedures for postponing and cancelling a scheduled ongoing equivalence verification audit or a "for cause" audit;
  • Revise FSIS policies to include procedures for conducting ongoing equivalence verification audits, within a specified time frame, prior to the first shipment from countries newly determined to be equivalent; and
  • Revise FSIS policies to include procedures for conducting ongoing equivalence verification audits, within a specified time frame, prior to the first shipment from countries that have been re-instated as equivalent.

Outlook & Analysis

With the current situations facing Brazil and the pending proposed rule involving poultry products from China, the release of this OIG report highlights a critical part of the equivalency determination process that allows FSIS to evaluate and verify that a country can maintain its equivalency status. FSIS used its authority to block beef shipments from Brazil over safety concerns and once these shipments resume, the agency will rely on periodic on-site audits to scrutinize Brazil’s food safety inspection system.

Because of the high-profile food safety scandals that have plagued China over the past decade, a proposed rule that would grant equivalency to China and allow shipments of poultry raised in that country has drawn opposition from food safety advocates and some Members of Congress. However, the impact on the rulemaking process will be minimal, especially considering that this proposed rule is part of an agreement to allow US beef to be exported to China. In order to maintain attention to the issue, there could be an attempt by Congress to incorporate legislative language in a USDA appropriations bill that would direct FSIS to implement the OIG recommendations in a timely manner or direct the agency to conduct on-site verification audits for Brazil and China once a year.