WASHINGTON – More than 4.4 billion pounds of Canadian meat and poultry made its way into U.S. grocery stores despite government officials' warnings that Canada wasn't doing enough to assure the safety of its food products.
A report by the Agriculture Department inspector general found that food safety officials in the department warned two years ago that public health was at risk, yet agency brass refused to limit shipments from Canada.
In fact, the department says it can't takefinal action on Canada's inspection system until November 2007. Meanwhile, Canadian officials say they have already taken steps to fix the problems.
The Agriculture Department said Monday it addressed problems at individual Canadian plants, some of which lost export privileges. "In no instance was public health placed at risk," said Richard Raymond, undersecretary for food safety.
The report was obtained Monday by The Associated Press.
The inspector general identified three big concerns with Canadian inspections:
—Inspections were not done daily at Canadian food processing plants.
—Canada lacked adequate sanitation controls.
—Inspectors didn't sample ready-to-eat products for listeria, which can cause deadly food poisoning.
Daily inspections are required at U.S. processing plants, and the law requires foreign countries to have equivalent inspections.
Raymond noted that U.S. inspectors doubled their testing for listeria at Canadian ports in the past two years.
U.S. officials halted imports from Australia in June 2004 and Belgium in 2003 because those countries didn't have daily inspections.
A critic said the Agriculture Department seems to have a "make-it-up-as-we-go" attitude in deciding which country's standards match U.S. standards.
"This undermines the integrity of American food safety standards and consumer confidence in our meat supply," said Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, senior Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee.
In a November 2003 memo to then-Secretary Ann Veneman, the department's Food Safety and Inspection Service warned that public health may be compromised if the agency didn't respond immediately to deficiencies in Canada's system.
Food safety officials scheduled a review for 2004 but postponed it. According to an e-mail from a department official, Veneman had directed food safety officials to work with Canadian inspection officials to resolve the differences, the report said.
"When FSIS officials returned to Canada in May 2005, they continued to find the same types of deficiencies they found in 2003," the report said.
Since that time, Canada has made changes to comply with U.S. requirements, a Canadian Food Inspection Agency official said Monday.
Daily inspections have been done since late summer, said Bill Anderson, CFIA director of food of animal origin. Canada is still trying to get the Agriculture Department to accept its previous random inspection system, he said.
Canada's tests for listeria are internationally recognized, but inspectors there have switched to the U.S. approach of testing finished products, Anderson said.
And all processing plants have been ordered to comply with sanitation controls similar to those in the U.S., Anderson said.