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usda won’t open meat inspection 'equivalency' process to public scrutiny

In grocery store meat sections across the United States, there are packets of beef and poultry that were produced in slaughterhouses and processing plants abroad. These products bear the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) seal of approval even though foreign processors are not required to adhere to the same rules as U.S. facilities and are not inspected by the USDA.

A small number of bureaucrats in U.S. federal agencies are making decisions about which countries’ food inspections systems are "equivalent" to the U.S. system. There is no congressional oversight of these decisions, and information about how these decisions are made is hard to obtain. In addition to stalling a series of Freedom of Information Act requests made by Public Citizen, the USDA has attempted to charge the organization thousands of dollars for information regarding the agency’s "equivalency" decisionmaking, which should be publicly available.

Based on a review of documents that are publicly available, Public Citizen found that U.S. trade commitments under the World Trade Organization (WTO) and North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have resulted in the importation and sale of meat that does not meet domestic food safety standards. Read the report and/or news release.)

"Equivalency" is an obligation of several WTO agreements, as well as NAFTA. It is designed to allow goods produced under different rules and regulations to be imported into another country with minimal inspection at the border. Before the United States entered the WTO, the USDA required other countries to have standards equal to the United States, and the agency inspected foreign plants eligible to export to this country. Now, the USDA declares other countries’ meat safety systems "equivalent" based on a review of foreign government paperwork instead of a physical inspection of all meat plants eligible to export to the United States.

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