Monday, June 26, 2006

US Beef, Questionable Testing, Japan's Distaste, and Congressional Irritation

This story is becoming almost comical. The lowdown is that back in December 2003, Japan - who was the US's largest beef importer, to the tune of about $2.2 billion/yr - banned US beef shipments due to the discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or Mad Cow Disease, in US cattle.

After much back and forth between the USDA and the Japanese Agriculture Ministry the two sides were able to agree on the terms to allow shipments to begin again. In December 2005, Japan lifted the two year old ban and US beef was once again setting sail towards the rising sun. Here is where the comedy begins...

On January 20, 2006, just six weeks after the Japanese lifted the ban it was back in place. Why? Under the agreement bones, spines, etc. were not permitted to be part of shipments to Japan because they have a high risk of BSE contamination. They are known as Specified Risk Materials (SRM). The Japanese found SRM in a shipment and halted all imports only weeks after it lifted a two year ban.

At the end of January, the USDA released an audit of safeguard techniques at US plants, here are a few findings:

The inspectors were unable to determine whether slaughterhouses and meat packers complied with rules to safeguard consumers.

OIG has found that USDA has not maintained a complete database of all meat renderers so that so that the Department can trace any possible infection back to its origins.

Inadequate documentation at nine of 12 slaughterhouses audited made it impossible to determine whether guidelines to detect high-risk material were followed.

Since USDA’s expanded testing and surveillance program is voluntary, it is unclear whether its sampling design was sufficient to make conclusions about the prevalence of BSE in the United States. The report emphasized the need to ensure that limitations in the testing and surveillance program are apparent to the public given that industry stakeholders could misinterpret USDA’s conclusions.

USDA did not conduct tests of clinically normal aged cattle in a statistically valid manner. This is important because countries in Europe have had a small number of cases with BSE from these clinically normal aged cattle. The OIG found that USDA put forth a half-hearted effort to conduct this testing, and focused on younger cattle -- guaranteeing their findings would be largely meaningless.

OIG could not determine if SRM procedures were followed due to a lack of record keeping at many establishments. OIG also found that inspectors responsible for ensuring proper SRM removal were not always experienced to identify problems. This limits their ability to know when requirements for removing risk materials are not met.

What's worse is that one inspector, back in 2004, sent a letter to the USDA basically stating what is listed above. For his trouble he was charged with personal misconduct and placed under investigation until incriminating documents were revealed that proved he was correct.

Now, the Japanese have agreed to re-lift the ban pending Japanese inspection of US facilities. This has incited a typical response from the Congress: a group of Senators have proposed legislation that contains a nonbinding call for trade sanctions unless the imports are restarted by the end of the summer. Prime Minister Koizumi and Bush are scheduled to meet June 29th.


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