The agency's review found vulnerabilities in FSIS's equivalency assessments of foreign countries' food safety systems.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – A recent audit revealed weaknesses in the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s oversight of equivalency assessments of exporting countries’ food safety systems.

The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the US Dept. of Agriculture concluded that FSIS equivalency audits were inconsistent and that the inspection program was vulnerable to weaknesses that increase the risk of contaminated or adulterated food being imported into the United States.

In its audit of the FSIS equivalency assessments of exporting countries, OIG said FSIS “…has a robust system for determining initial equivalence,” and found no public health concerns related to the food safety agency’s ongoing equivalence. But OIG did find weaknesses in FSIS’s oversight structure for monitoring ongoing equivalence.

“Our audit disclosed that FSIS did not consistently audit equivalent countries in compliance with the agency’s performance assessments, and that policies and procedures for conducting ongoing equivalence verification audits contained insufficient guidance for performing those audits consistently and completely,” OIG stated. “We also concluded that FSIS lacked management controls over the process of determining equivalence of ISMs as well as adequate documentation detailing the delisting of foreign establishments. Without more robust controls over ongoing equivalence evaluations of foreign countries’ food safety systems, we concluded that FSIS’ inspection program is vulnerable to weaknesses that increase the risk of adulterated or unsafe meat, poultry, or egg products being imported into the United States.”

OIG documented other issues with FSIS equivalency audits, including:

  • Inconsistent procedures when conducting ongoing equivalence verification audit of exporting countries’ safety systems;
  • Inadequate policy to monitor, classify, evaluate, or determine equivalence of individual sanitary measures;
  • No corrective actions in response to previous audit recommendations; and
  • No actual dates or reason why certified foreign establishments were removed from the program after they were deemed no longer eligible to export product to the US.

In a statement, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut), issued harsh criticism of the USDA for what she called “significant deficiencies” revealed by the OIG.

“Agencies like FSIS cannot be allowed to cut corners when it comes to our nation’s food supply,” DeLauro said. “That is why I will continue to fight to keep food that is imported from countries with a history of food safety problems off the plates of Americans. In that vein, FSIS must do their part to improve how they evaluate food safety systems in other countries to protect the American people from potentially harmful products.”

OIG was tasked with reviewing four types of FSIS equivalence determinations:

  • initial equivalence,
  • ·ongoing equivalence verification,
  • reinstatement of equivalence, and
  • individual sanitary measure (ISM).

Additionally, OIG reviewed the effectiveness of corrective actions in response to prior OIG audits in 2005 and 2008.

In the 2005 audit, OIG found that FSIS did not have protocols or guidelines for evaluating deficiencies for any country’s inspection system.

In the 2008 audit, OIG determined that FSIS needed to strengthen the agency’s controls for assessing the equivalence of foreign countries’ food safety systems, specifically, the controls concerning the methodology used to select foreign establishments for review.