Letter to Brazil also hints at possible FSIS leadership change

After enhanced re-inspection measures resulted in a substantially higher rejection rate than other countries, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service recently announced that it was taking the extra step and suspending fresh beef shipments from Brazil. This suspension is yet another development in the ongoing food safety bribery scandal in Brazil, in which meatpacking facilities allegedly provided bribes to inspectors in exchange for the approval of spoiled meat for export.

When the investigation in Brazil was revealed this past March, the federal police in Brazil focused on two of the country’s largest meat exporting companies – JBS SA and BRF SA. In response, several countries, including China, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia imposed a temporary ban on beef shipments from Brazil.

During his confirmation hearing in March, a week after the investigation in Brazil became public, USDA Secretary Perdue indicated that banning any beef shipments would represent an over-reaction, and expressed concern that it would trigger a retaliation. Instead of a ban, FSIS implemented enhanced measures, including re-inspecting all beef shipments from Brazil at point-of-entry.

According to a USDA press release, this increased scrutiny of beef shipments from Brazil resulted in an 11 percent rejection rate, which is substantially higher than the rejection rate of one percent of shipments from the rest of the world. Despite Brazil’s status as a long time trading partner, Secretary Perdue declared in the release that protecting consumers is his first priority and the higher rejection rate warranted changing course and imposing a ban.

Congressional Interest

Secretary Perdue announced the ban on beef shipments from Brazil one day after Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) wrote a letter urging USDA to immediately suspend all meat imports from Brazil until FSIS conducts a comprehensive review of Brazil’s safety and inspection standards.

“Without Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL), consumers cannot differentiate which products are coming from abroad and which products are raised in our pastures,” Sen. Tester wrote. He added, “We raise plenty of high-quality beef in the United States to serve our market. We do not need to import millions of pounds of meat products a month from a country that is failing over five percent of its reinspections.”

FSIS Leadership Change Foorthcomng?

In an administrative development that may have gone unnoticed was the absence of FSIS Administrator Al Almanza’s name in USDA’s press release and in the formal letter from FSIS to Brazil. While it is entirely appropriate for the Secretary to be quoted on any USDA press release, a formal letter to a country suspending beef shipments is typically signed by the FSIS Administrator, the highest ranking career food safety official at USDA; instead, the letter to Brazil was signed by the Deputy Administrator.

Based on historical practice, the absence of the Administrator’s name in an important announcement like this could mean that Mr. Almanza recused himself from any deliberations involving the Brazil situation. The main reason for recusal is if a person is considering employment with an entity that has a direct interest in a matter pending before FSIS. It certainly is something worth monitoring.

If the FSIS Administrator position becomes vacant, Secretary Perdue will need to nominate a new Undersecretary for Food Safety as well as appoint the new Administrator. This provides a tremendous opportunity for the Secretary to change the course of FSIS and inject the agency with innovative science-based ideas, and accountability.

Analysis

In a recent opinion piece in Food Safety News, Brian Ronholm, Senior Director of Regulatory Policy at Arent Fox LLP (and former USDA Deputy Undersecretary for Food Safety), wrote that, notwithstanding food safety and consumer protections considerations, USDA seemed to possess some leverage in being able suspend beef shipments from Brazil. The political scandal that this caused there, combined with other countries having already banned beef shipments, negated any potential retaliatory attempts. If faced with a similar situation involving a country in which they do not possess similar leverage, the decision-making process for USDA and FSIS to suspend shipments becomes more complicated.

Because they are an important trading partner, it is highly unlikely that FSIS would revoke Brazil’s equivalency status. For key trading partners, FSIS typically conducts a comprehensive equivalency verification audit and works with the government to ensure corrective actions are taken to address any critical problems that have arisen.

The Food, Drug, Medical Device & Agriculture group will continue to monitor key developments on Brazil beef shipments and equivalency determinations, as well as potential USDA personnel moves.