U.S. food safety officials have blocked a growing number of meat shipments from Australia since 2019 over fecal contamination, straining trade relations between the two countries, according to documents reviewed by Reuters .
Labor and food safety groups blame the problem on 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, the second largest foreign supplier of meat to the United States, have been refused by the United States Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) due to contamination by faeces or other digestive material in 2020, up from one in 2019 and four in 2018, according to internal U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data included in the documents.
Canada and New Zealand, two other major suppliers of meat to the United States, each had only one rejected shipment for contamination with feces or other digestive material in 2020, according to internal data. Mexico, another major supplier, did not have one.
Three more Australian meat shipments were rejected for the same reason in the first two months of 2021, compared to one from New Zealand and none from Canada or Mexico, the data showed.
More recent figures were not included in documents reviewed by Reuters, and USDA declined to provide them when asked.
The companies that exported the rejected Australian shipments are JBS Australia, Thomas Foods, Fletcher International Exports, Australian Lamb Co. and V&V Walsh.
Reuters was able to identify the companies by crossing internal data detailing the date and reasons for the releases with publicly available USDA data detailing the dates and names of the companies, but excluding the reasons for the releases.
None of the companies responded to requests for comment.
Eating meat contaminated with feces or other digestive material can lead to fatal illness caused by E. coli and other pathogens.
Since U.S. food safety inspectors only physically examine or test a subset of imported meat, the releases suggest other contaminated shipments may have crossed the U.S. border, industry experts say. food.
FSIS played down the rejection data in a statement to Reuters, saying its import inspection process “gives confidence in the safety of Australian products entering US trade.”
The US Food Inspection Agency added that only 0.6% of Australian meat it physically examined in 2020 was rejected. He did not provide a figure for the fraction of all imports that was examined.
Australia’s Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment (DAWE) told Reuters in a statement that “Australian non-compliances remain very low – both relative to the total volume of meat and meat products exported by Australia, and compared to competing trading partners “.
Critics of company-run inspections say the system can lead to more contamination of the meat, as workers at the plant are often not as experienced as government inspectors and can also feel pressure from the plant. of their employers to prioritize speed over safety.
The Australian Meat Industry Council, a trade association, did not respond to a request for comment.
Brooke Muscat, national vice president of the Australian Community and Public Sector Union – which represents government inspectors and opposes the semi-privatized system – says government inspection jobs have been cut in half.
She predicts that Australian slaughterhouses will have replaced almost all federal inspectors with company employees by the end of 2022.
“While they’ve announced more outsourcing of meat inspection, we’re saying you’re going to see an increase in rejections in the United States,” Muscat said.
“And it is happening.”
Associated Australian Press