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USDA cuts safety audits on imported meat

01/25/2013 @ 2:08pm

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has cut the number of food safety audits it conducts on foreign countries that ship meat to the U.S. as part of an overhaul that the agency says will allow it to focus on the riskiest imports.

USDA officials are now only conducting audits of safety laws in meat-exporting countries at least once every three years instead of on a mandatory annual basis, the agency said Friday, a move that critics say could reduce the safety of imported meat.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D., Conn.), one of those critics, expressed alarm that USDA had already changed its audit system without informing Congress or the public.

The previous system that relied on annual audits was "imperative to ensuring that foreign regulatory systems provide the same level of protection of the public health as our domestic system," Ms. DeLauro said, but now it seems that USDA "has been implementing and refining these changes for several years."

The USDA said Friday in a submission to the U.S. Federal Register that it began making the transition "from an annual on-site audit to less frequent on-site audits" in 2009 and "now that the transition is fully in place, [USDA] is announcing it to the public."

Countries with a history of food safety violations will get closer scrutiny under the new system, the USDA said.

"This performance-based approach allows [USDA] to direct its resources to foreign food regulatory systems that pose a greater risk to public health compared to others," the USDA said.

USDA is also relying heavier now on written reports that it requires foreign countries to fill out about its safety measures. Foreign countries are also supposed use the paper work "self-reporting tool" after problems are found with meat shipments.

"It's self-inspection," according to Tony Corbo, a legislative representative for the consumer group Food & Water Watch, who said USDA new import safety system is a downgrade from how the agency used to monitor meat imports.

USDA said the changes it made help the agency focus on countries that the agency considers riskier to import meat from, but Mr. Corbo and others are demanding to know how USDA determines where the greater risk is.

USDA officials were not available for immediate comment.

Write to Bill Tomson at Bill.Tomson@dowjones.com

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(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 25, 2013 14:39 ET (19:39 GMT)

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