Consumer group urges review of Australian meat inspection

by Erica Shaffer
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WASHINGTON – Consumer interest group Food & Water Watch has renewed calls to federal food-safety officials to revoke equivalency status of the Australian Export Meat Inspection System (AEMIS).

Under AEMIS, Australia’s Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) removed government meat inspectors from red meat slaughter lines and allowed company employees to assume those duties. The US Department of Agriculture reaffirmed Australia's equivalency status in 2011.

Food & Water Watch claims that USDA’s determination was based on the US HACCP-based Inspection Models Project (HIMP), a pilot program established in 1999 that included chicken and turkey processing plants and a handful of pork processing plants. The group argues that federal audits confirm the pilot program may be flawed. Additionally, Food & Water Watch claims the European Union flagged problems with AEMIS.

Officials with EU’s Food and Veterinary Office carried out an audit of AEMIS in October 2012. In a final report, FVO said “In general, the organization of the control of the whole chain of the production of fresh meat of domestic animals and wild game meat intended for export to the EU is satisfactory with the exception of the concept introduced by the AEMIS. The AEMIS inspection system implemented by the DAFF in the export establishments is not in line with the requirements of Regulation (EC) No 854/2004 because the AAOs [Australian Government Authorized Officers] who are directly employed and paid by the FBO [food business operator] cannot be considered as OAs [official auxiliaries] to perform post-mortem inspection.”

In response, DAFF said its role includes verifying that establishments implement controls over food products intended for export and applying appropriate penalties when manufactures don't implement proper controls. DAFF argued that conflicts of interest are unavoidable, and that it is inevitable that “some staff employed in a large government organization will, from time to time, have a conflict of interest.”

Food & Water Watch said meat companies in Australia are abandoning the AEMIS system, and that US food-safety inspectors have found “serious food-safety violations”, such as positive tests for E. coli O157:H7 and visible fecal matter on meat shipments.

“Although the European Union has flagged definite problems in allowing meat companies to police their own inspection systems, the USDA has yet to speak out about this very obvious conflict of interest,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “Yet if the result of a privatized meat inspection system in Australia is food that is unsafe to eat, the United States owes it to consumers to revoke the equivalency determination for AEMIS.”

Food & Water Watch detailed its concerns in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, which can be viewed here: http://goo.gl/KdL9qL. This is the fifth time in two years Food & Water Watch has urged USDA to re-evaluate Australia's meat inspection equivalency status. 
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