By Leah Douglas
WASHINGTON – U.S. food safety officials have blocked a rising number of meat shipments from Australia since 2019 due to fecal contamination, straining trade relations between the two countries, according to documents reviewed by Reuters.
Labor and food safety groups attribute the problem to an Australian system that increasingly allows companies to inspect their own meat, replacing government inspectors. Similar efforts to privatize inspections are underway in other major meat-producing countries including the United States.
Ten shipments of meat from Australia, America’s second biggest foreign meat supplier, were refused by the U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) because of contamination with feces or other digestive matter in 2020, up from one in 2019 and four in 2018, according to internal data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) included within the documents.
Canada and New Zealand, two other large suppliers of meat to the United States, each only had one rejected shipment for contamination with fecal or other digestive matter in 2020, the internal data show. Mexico, another major supplier, had none.
Another three shipments of Australian meat were rejected for the same reason during the first two months of 2021, compared to one from New Zealand and none from Canada or Mexico, the data show. More recent figures were not included in the documents reviewed by Reuters, and the USDA declined to provide them when asked.
The companies that exported the rejected Australian shipments include JBS Australia, Thomas Foods, Fletcher International Exports, Australian Lamb Co., and V&V Walsh. Reuters was able to identify the firms by cross-referencing the internal data detailing the date and reasons for the rejections with publicly available USDA data detailing dates and company names but excluding the reasons for the rejections.
None of the companies responded to requests for comment.
Eating meat contaminated with feces or other digestive material can result in deadly illness caused by E. coli and other pathogens. Because U.S. food safety inspectors only physically examine or test a subset of imported meat, the rejections suggest that other contaminated shipments may have made it through the United States border, according to food industry experts.
“That probably means you have a lot of contamination that’s not visible,” said Dr. Barbara Kowalcyk, assistant professor at Ohio State University’s Department of Food Science and Technology.
FSIS downplayed the rejections data in a statement to Reuters, saying its import inspection process “provides confidence in the safety of product from Australia that enters into U.S. commerce.” The U.S. food inspection agency added that just 0.6% of the Australian meat that it physically examined in 2020 was rejected. It did not provide a figure for what fraction of all imports was examined.
Australia’s Department of Agriculture, Water, and the Environment (DAWE) told Reuters in a statement that “Australian non-compliances remain very low – both relative to Australia’s total volume of meat and meat products exported, and when compared to competitor trading partners.”
The rising rate of rejections by the United States has become a worry for Australia and U.S. government officials, according to internal memos reviewed by Reuters.
Jason Lucas, the assistant secretary for the meat exports branch of Australia’s DAWE, wrote in a March 2021 memo that the agency was seeing an “ongoing trend” in the detection of feces and digestive material on meat shipped to the United States, despite an October 2020 effort by the agency to curb such rejections.
He wrote that the spike has been highlighted by U.S. food safety officials as a concern and warned that a continued trend of rejections “could result in the US imposing sanctions, losses in confidence in Australia’s export system, and/or potential losses in market access for the US.”
DAWE declined to answer questions about the memo Lucas wrote or to make him available for comment.
Australia shipped about 760 million pounds of meat to the United States in 2019, 18% of total U.S. meat imports, mostly in the form of lamb, mutton, veal, and beef.
MEAT COMPANIES INSPECTING THEMSELVES
The uptick in rejected meat shipments highlights potential problems in Australia’s domestic inspection regime, which has been transitioning from a government-run to a company-run system. Other major producers including the United States, Canada, and New Zealand have been moving toward similar systems.
Under such semi-privatized schemes, regulators allow meat companies to substitute their own workers for government employees to inspect carcasses as they moved down the processing line. The change intends to speed up operations and save companies and the government money without undermining quality.
The Australian Export Meat Inspection System (AEMIS) was developed collaboratively by the meat industry and government and introduced in 2011. By 2019, an industry report found that half of exporting meat plants in the country had adopted the system.
In the early years of AEMIS, a spate of U.S. shipments rejected for contamination resulted in a temporary ban on Australian meat imports to the United States in 2013.
Critics of company-run inspections say the system can result in more contaminated meat because plant workers often aren’t as experienced as government inspectors and may also feel pressure from their employers to prioritize speed over safety.
Minutes from a June 2021 meeting of a meat export committee within DAWE, for example, detailed one incident at an Australian meat packing plant in which “6 washers and 6 staff with scrapers” were told by their company to scrape the feces off of contaminated meat – a violation of food safety regulations.
FSIS said that the only accepted method for removal of contaminated tissue on livestock carcasses is to cut it off.
The Australian Meat Industry Council, a trade association, did not respond to a request to comment.
Brooke Muscat, deputy national president at Australia’s Community and Public Sector Union – which represents government inspectors and opposes the semi-privatized system – says government inspection jobs have fallen by half since AEMIS was introduced. She anticipates that Australian meatpackers will have replaced almost all federal inspectors with company employees by the end of 2022.
“As they’ve announced more outsourcing of meat inspection, we’re saying what you’re going to see is increasing rejections in the U.S.,” Muscat says. “And it’s coming to fruition.”
Australia’s AEMIS inspection system has its roots in the U.S. meatpacking industry, which has lobbied for less regulation of slaughtering for decades.
In 1997, USDA introduced a pilot program that allowed several pork plants to control more of their own carcass inspection. In 2014, the program was expanded to poultry plants and in 2018, to more pork plants. The agency has also granted a waiver to at least one beef plant to replace some government inspectors with plant workers.
Several consumer, labor, and food safety groups have sued USDA over the program, arguing that the agency has failed to prove semi-private inspection is adequate or safe for workers.
Between 2012 and 2019, domestic recalls of meat and poultry products rose more than 50%, according to publicly available USDA data. Class I recalls, used when there is the greatest risk to human health, rose 110%. In 2020, the number of recalls was 75% lower, but nearly 90% of the recalls were Class I.
The USDA did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday on the U.S. contamination data. FSIS said it could not immediately provide data on rejections of U.S. meat exports by other nations.
Some watchdog groups say the recent border refusals from Australia highlight the potential dangers of expanding privatized inspections more broadly. Zach Corrigan, an attorney at Food & Water Watch, a U.S. consumer and environmental advocacy group, called the rejections “further evidence that these semi-privatized inspection systems that allow the companies to inspect their own meat product are ineffective.”
(Reporting by Leah Douglas; editing by Richard Valdmanis and Brian Thevenot)