reform meat import approvals-lawmaker
Jul 28, 2009 6:17pm EDT
Congress hearing probes trade, food
* USDA leaves too much to foreign regulators-DeLauro
* Meat group says USDA should assess China import safety
* Congressional ban has created trade issue
* Consumer watchdogs say USDA process needs reform (Recasts, updates with
comments from hearing)
By Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON, July 28 (Reuters) - The U.S. Agriculture Department should review
its system for approving meat imports because it cedes too much control over
food safety to foreign countries, an influential lawmaker said on Tuesday.
A move by USDA earlier this decade toward allowing imports of Chinese poultry
demonstrates that trade concerns play too great a role in what should be a
public health issue, said U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who heads the House
committee in charge of appropriating money to the department.
"I think we need to take a hard look" at overhauling the way the
United States deems other nations' food safety rules equivalent to the U.S.
system, DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, told reporters.
"When you grant equivalency, you lose most of the control of the
process," said DeLauro, whose committee has prevented the USDA from
allowing imports of Chinese chicken, and has proposed that the ban continue
DeLauro said other food safety scandals in China make her doubt whether U.S.
importers could be assured Chinese poultry products had been properly cooked.
The Senate has not yet passed its version of the bill that includes the ban
on Chinese chicken, but has proposed special inspections that would allow for
The ban has raised hackles in China, which recently stopped issuing import
permits for U.S. chicken, threatening the top market for U.S. poultry, worth
almost $700 million per year.
China has launched a complaint at the World Trade Organization about the ban.
Some analysts have also linked China's refusal to import U.S. beef to the
U.S. law allows any of the other 152 countries that belong to the WTO to
apply to export meat to the the United States. A coalition of meat companies
and trade groups told a hearing on the issue that it was unfair that China
has been singled out for its poultry.
"We will not be able to avoid a serious trade confrontation with China
if Congress does not reconsider" its ban, trade lawyer Kevin Brosch
said, speaking for the coalition, which includes the biggest U.S. meat
companies -- Tyson Foods Inc (TSN.N), JBS SA (JBSS3.SA), Cargill
Inc [CARG.UL], Seaboard Corp (SEB.A), Sanderson Farms
Inc (SAFM.O), Pilgrim's
Pride Corp (PGPDQ.PK),
Smithfield Foods Inc (SFD.N), and Hormel
Foods Corp (HRL.N).
The coalition also includes seed company Monsanto Co (MON.N) and several
trade groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The U.S. administration has said it wants to hold trade partners to task for
standards-based barriers to U.S. exports, but that strategy will be
undermined if the United States itself has policies that contravene trade
rules, Brosch said.
The USDA should not be barred from evaluating the safety of China's poultry,
Brosch said, noting the department has strict standards for both homegrown
and imported products.
"We do not prejudge the outcome of that process and we respectfully
suggest that this committee should not, either," Brosch said in his
DeLauro, who said she may hold more hearings on the issue, read through a litany
of "disturbing conditions" such as dirty conveyer belts found by
USDA inspectors at Chinese processing plants in 2004 -- infractions she
posted on a large television screen in the hearing room.
During the hearing, most lawmakers on the subcommittee expressed skepticism
about the safety of meat imports.
Two consumer groups testified the USDA should overhaul its approval process
for meat imports and do more monitoring of foreign plants.
"Japan and Europe have gone one better" than the USDA, said Lori
Wallach of Public Citizen, noting other regulators who accept Chinese chicken
have their own inspectors overseeing the processors and doing more
reinspection at borders.
No officials from the USDA testified -- DeLauro noted the undersecretary for
food safety has not yet been appointed -- but the former undersecretary told
reporters the department's system for approving meat imports was sound.
"I think it's one of the shining jewels in the crown of FSIS" (the
USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service), said Richard Raymond, now working
as a consultant. (Editing by David Gregorio)