Secretive USDA Decision-Making Process Harms Public Health

Has Been Ongoing For Years, DeLauro Demands Answers

 

WASHINGTON, DC—Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) is asking the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) for details about the department’s use of advisory committees.  Today’s Federal Register notice highlights how USDA has dramatically reduced the number of in-person audits of foreign food safety systems without sufficient public notice. In November 2012, DeLauro asked the department for answers about the process described in today’s Federal Register notice.  To date that letter has gone unanswered.

 

“Alarmingly, it seems that FSIS fundamentally changed the process used to assess ongoing equivalency with our trade partners without publishing a single public notice...” DeLauro wrote in a letter sent today.  “I am concerned that this process also highlights FSIS’ indifference to the advisory committees…established by Congress to advise USDA on food safety policy.”

 

DeLauro is a senior member of the subcommittee that funds USDA and is a champion of protecting the safety of our food supply.

 

The full letter is as follows:

 

January 25, 2013

 

 

Secretary Tom Vilsack

U.S. Department of Agriculture

1400 Independence Avenue, S.W.

Washington, D.C.  20250

 

Dear Secretary Vilsack,

 

I write today out of concern related to both the process used to ensure the safety of imported meat and poultry products and, as disconcerting, the use of advisory committees by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

 

Earlier today, the department published a notice in the Federal Register (docket number FSIS-2012-0049) related to the process used for ongoing verification of equivalence of foreign food regulatory systems.  As you know, this system is imperative to ensuring that foreign regulatory systems provide the same level of protection of the public health as our domestic system. It helps make certain that imported meat and poultry products are safe and wholesome, thus building public trust. 

 

Alarmingly, it seems that FSIS fundamentally changed the process used to assess ongoing equivalency with our trade partners without publishing a single public notice in the Federal Register on the revisions or seeking public comment on the proposed changes.  It appears that the agency has been implementing and refining these changes for several years.  Yet, a July 2011 document from FSIS entitled “Process for Evaluating the Equivalence of Foreign Meat, Poultry, and Egg Products Food Regulatory Systems” failed to explicitly note these changes.  Pages 13 through 17 of that document discuss ‘equivalence verification’ but fail to clearly disclose that the agency was using the process announced in today’s notice.

 

Further, these changes were not clearly disclosed nor discussed in the Fiscal Year 2010, 2011, 2012, or 2013 Congressional Justification documents that accompanied the Administration’s budget request.  The most to be found in the justification documents seems to be the description of the on-site verification audits: “annual” (Fiscal Year 2009, 2010, 2011) to “periodic” (Fiscal Year 2012, 2013) and a sentence on the Self Reporting Tool in Fiscal Year 2013.  As Chair of the House Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies until January 2011 and an active member since then, I cannot overstate the value of those justifications as we make informed decisions during the appropriations process.

 

I am concerned this process also highlights FSIS’ indifference to the advisory committees, including the National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection (NACMPI), established by Congress to advise USDA on food safety policy.  The agency consulted NACMPI in August 2008 on the process used to verify equivalency.  Based on public records of NACMPI meetings between August 2008 and December 2012, FSIS failed to update the public and the committee on the agency’s changes to the process used to verify equivalence.  As a November 2012 Food Safety News article noted, “the number of countries audited…each year has declined by more than 60 percent since 2008.”  Such a dramatic change should surely warrant clear communication with the panel of external experts that advise the department on meat and poultry inspection.

 

As distressing as this is on its own, I am as concerned that this represents a disappointing new practice. For many years, NACMPI met twice a year (1999-2006; 2008), providing input on food safety policies and receiving updates from the agency. The committee did not meet in 2009 and has only met once a year since 2010.  In 2012, the sole meeting was held via an internet conference call. Furthermore, NACMPI was not consulted on the specifics of the department’s proposed poultry modernization rule, which represented a substantial change to the agency’s poultry inspection program, until the Committee’s March 2012 meeting, months after the proposal had been published for comment.

 

As such, I ask that you respond to the following questions by close of business on Monday, February 25, 2013. I also ask that you provide a detailed timeline of FSIS’ work on equivalency verification between the NACMPI meeting in August 2008 and today’s Federal Register notice.

·        Will the agency publish a risk assessment on the changes to the equivalence verification process announced in today’s Federal Register notice? If so, when will the risk assessment be published? If not, why is a risk assessment not warranted?

·        Have the changes announced in the Federal Register today affected the department’s budget for the international food safety and inspection responsibilities of FSIS? If so, please detail the budgetary impact.

·        In what ways does FSIS utilize the expertise of its external advisory committees to inform its policy decisions on contemporary food safety issues? When does the agency believe is the best time to seek input from its advisory committees in its policy development process?

·        NACMPI is managed by the FSIS Office of Outreach, Employee Education and Training while the National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods is managed by the Office of Public Health Science.  Why are the two advisory committees overseen by different offices within FSIS?  Specifically, why is NACMPI managed by the Office of Outreach?

·        How does FSIS ensure that both advisory committees are utilized as scientific resources to help inform department policy, not to learn of department policy after changes are made?

 

Thank you for your continued leadership in protecting the public health.  I look forward to our continued work together to ensure the integrity of the equivalency process and the appropriate utility of FSIS advisory committees.

 

Sincerely,

 

 

 

ROSA L. DeLAURO

Member of Congress

 

Cc: Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, Under Secretary for Food Safety