WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced that it will require all Canadian meat and poultry products to be tested for E. coli, salmonella and listeria monocytogenes before they can enter the U.S. for sale or additional processing.
The move was announced shortly after the USDA found that the E. coli outbreak that led Topps Meat Co., Elizabeth, N.J., to recall more than 21 million pounds of frozen hamburger patties in September was caused by meat sourced from Rancher's Beef Ltd., a packing plant in Alberta. The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service has also delisted Rancher's Beef, effectively banning that company's products from entering the U.S., and the agency has announced plans to audit the safety and inspection measures in effect at a selection of Canadian processing plants.
“The audit and stepped-up actions at the border are being conducted because of concerns about testing practices at Ranchers Beef Ltd. that were discovered as part of the ongoing investigation,” Richard Raymond, undersecretary of agriculture for food safety, said in a statement.
“FSIS will review the preliminary findings of this audit to determine whether there is need to continue these additional interim requirements. … These measures are being taken to further ensure the equivalency of the system already in place. We continue to work together with our food safety partners both domestically and internationally to ensure imported meat and poultry products are produced under systems at least equivalent to those in the United States.”
Raymond added that the audit team would include “top officials” from the Office of International Affairs and the Office of Program Evaluation, Enforcement and Review.
The United States is by far the biggest export market for Canadian beef, and officials from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency expressed disappointment over the decision, sending representatives to Washington to negotiate.
“We expect the interim measure will be reconsidered,” Frederique Moulin, manager of international meat programs with CFIA, told Reuters. “The [Canadian] government was very disappointed with the USDA's decision to take these unnecessary actions.”
Last week, Wayzata, Minn.-based Cargill also recalled more than 1 million pounds of ground beef that may have been contaminated with E. coli from markets in 10 states, including Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. It was the company's second large recall in a single month.
This year's contaminated import scares, as well as news of domestic meat and produce recalls, have led to growing consumer concerns about the safety of the U.S. food supply. In a separate development last week, the Import Safety Working Group, an advisory commission created by President Bush in July, recommended that the Food and Drug Administration be empowered to order mandatory recalls of products deemed to be a risk to consumers. Currently, the agency is charged with the inspection of all imported and domestically produced foods other than meat, poultry and eggs, which are the purview of the USDA. However, the FDA currently lacks the authority to order a recall, and can only urge suppliers to work with them on a voluntary basis.
The commission also urged the Bush administration to expand the presence of inspectors from Customs, the Border Patrol and the Consumer Product Safety Commission in countries that are major exporters to the U.S.