MAY 1990 - VOLUME 11 - NUMBER 5
C A N A D A
Return to the Jungle
by David Lapp
Meat packers in both Canada and the United States are capitalizing on the reduced inspection standards which resulted in part from the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement (FTA) of 1989 to dump contaminated meat on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border. Meat inspectors in both countries charge that packers send meat which is seriously contaminated and ""unfit for human consumption" across the border. And, they claim that U.S. and Canadian meat packing companies are offloading poor quality, and sometimes dangerously unhealthy, poultry, pork and beef to the supermarkets of both countries.
With the adoption of the FTA, the already inadequate inspection process for meats exported between the two countries was weakened. Now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture hope to reduce inspections further. In February 1990, they made public a plan to eliminate all border inspections for meat imported from one country to the other. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Clayton Yeutter and Canadian Minister of Agriculture Donald Mazankowski announced, 'This is the first time in our countries' history that we have been able to 'open our borders' for food safety standards." The agreement's implementation has been delayed numerous times and is now scheduled for September 1, 1990.
The agreement is part of an effort, begun during the Reagan administration, to standardize regulations throughout the global economy in order to facilitate trade. The decision to open the borders for meat imports is based on two assumptions: first, that domestic inspection prior to export is sufficient to ensure consumer protection, and consequently reinspection at the port of entry is unnecessary; and second, that the Canadian and U.S. inspection programs are equivalent. But "nothing could be further from the truth," according to William Lehman, a USDA meat inspector for 26 years who directs a meat import inspection post in Sweetgrass, Montana. He has blown the whistle on the USDA for allowing contaminated meat into the country. Lehman contends the "open border" agreement will worsen the already declining quality of Canadian meat imports, which he says are mostly due to a few unscrupulous meat packing companies.
Before the FTA
In 1987 and 1988, prior to the implementation of the FTA, the USDA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) and the congressional General Accounting Office (GAO) is-sued reports critical of the U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) meat import inspection procedures. The investigations revealed that some Canadian meat imports were bypassing the inland inspection sites and going directly to distribution centers.
In response, the FSIS announced on January 1, 1989 that it would inspect Canadian meats imported to the United States at the border rather than at inland sites which are easier to avoid. FSIS administrator Lester M. Crawford asserted that implementation of the FTA would not alter the new regulation. "Whether or not the FTA is adopted, import reinspection of Canadian [meat] products will continue to be conducted by U.S. inspectors," he wrote in a letter announcing the border inspections.
A double standard
When the FTA became effective January 1, 1989, however, inspection of Canadian meat was drastically weakened, rather than strengthened, as the OIG and GAO had recommended.
Currently, other foreign meat packers are subject to much more stringent regulations than Canadian packers. When meat arrives in the United States from countries other than Canada, a certified USDA inspector unloads the entire shipment, verifies the number of boxes and the inspection numbers on those boxes, pulls meat samples for close examination, inspects each box for transportation damage or smells indicating spoilage and checks the exporting country's health certificates which accompany the shipment.
"That is not true with what we do with shipments from Canada," says Jack Perrault, director of International Import Inspection Service. Perrault, who runs an inspection facility in Seattle, Washington, explains that because of provisions in the FTA, only between one in seven and one in 15 Canadian shipments are stopped for inspection. It is the responsibility of the meat packer whose turn it is to be inspected to stop at the inspection facility. In 1989, because there were no penalties for not stopping, Perrault says, as many as 100 trucks ignored orders to stop and went directly to their destinations.
Moreover, the trucks that do stop are not completely unloaded. Contrary to standard regulatory practices, Canadian meat packers have been allowed to select their own inspection samples. Before the truck leaves the meat packing plant, if the shipment is due for inspection, the packer selects a sample and places it on the back of the truck for the USDA inspector. Lehman points out the obvious danger in this short cut. "No inspector should allow the people being monitored to select the samples being looked at," he says.
There are many other methods that packers regularly use to avoid inspections. Since the Canadian packers are notified before leaving the plant whether they are to stop for an inspection, some packers call the USDA, cancel the shipment and send the same shipment under a new invoice number, thereby avoiding inspection altogether. "The Canadians abused the system at every chance they could. They got caught sending down products that were already refused entry, ... they had trucks skipping the border not stopping for inspection and they had guys calling in cancelling and then hoping for a skip," Perrault says.
Lehman's experience inspecting the meat imported to the United States reveals what the packers are trying to hide. Lehman reports that on a single day in January, 1990 at his inspection station in Sweetgrass, "Out of 22 loads the USDA instructed me to inspect, nine of those loads were 'refused entry' ... because of contamination and failure to meet criteria set down by the USDA. Not borderline failures, but gross failures. Unfit for human consumption."
During another inspection day in May, Lehman examined 175,799 pounds of pork being exported by the Canadian company, Gainers, Inc. Because of earlier violations, the company was subject to a higher rate of inspection than other Canadian meat exporters. Lehman marked "refused entry" on 64,638 pounds, or 36 percent of the shipments, because of contamination with hair, fecal matter, ingesta, blood clots, and bruises. "I had one pork shoulder leg that was completely blood — it looked like a bowl full of Jello," Lehman says.
Lehman and Perrault say that the USDA's inspections have become so lax under the Free Trade Agreement that even when contaminated meat is discovered it is allowed into the United States. They point to a recent shipment of hot dogs, packaged by the Canadian company Fletchers, which tested positive for listeria, a dangerous and some-times fatal bacteria related to salmonella. (Last year, a Canadian woman died from eating listeria-contaminated Fletcher's wieners.) Instead of alerting consumers to the danger and delaying distribution, the USDA allowed the shipment to be distributed while it conducted further tests. Currently, Fletcher's hot dogs (from the same shipment containing the listeria-positive samples) are on the shelves of grocery stores on the West Coast. The shipments will not be stopped until further tests show positive results for listeria.
USDA spokesperson Jim Greene defends the import inspection program. When asked about the possibility that meat contaminated with listeria is on the shelves of grocery stores, Greene does concede, however, 'There is probably meat that slips by our domestic surveillance at will. No system is perfect. You can't look at every pound of every shipment."
Perrault condemns the USDA's lackadaisical approach. "Consumer protection is at risk," he warns. "The USDA gave up consumer protection for free trade." The same concerns are heard in Canada, where meat inspectors accuse Prime Minister Brian Mulroney of placing business interests ahead of consumer health and safety.
The Canadian experience
"The Prime Minister's latest move toward an 'open border' policy on meat inspection proves that he is more concerned about the profits of big business in the meat industry than he is about ensuring proper meat inspection controls for the meat consumed by Canadians," asserted the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), an association of unions representing Canadian government employees, in a May 1990 statement. "The free trade agreement was brought in for duty, taxes and tariff purposes, not for disease control or to ensure healthy and wholesome food products were allowed entry into Canada."
Fred Coates, president of the Canadian Agriculture Union, which includes all of Canada's import meat inspectors, says that PSAC members are trying to keep contaminated food exports from the United States out of Canada. He says that "during the inspection procedures now in place, [PSAC members] have on several occasions refused the entry of meat into Canada from the United States because it was unfit for human consumption." With reduced inspection requirements, he expects the violations will increase. "With deregulation in the United States, some truckloads of meat coming into Canada have had items included such as photocopying chemicals, tires and beauty salon supplies. With this new open border policy, who knows what will be on the truck," Coates says.
The roots of the new jungle
Meat inspections have become a weapon in a battle between the Canadian and U.S. meat packing industries which has victimized consumers in both countries. Even with the vastly reduced number of meat inspections which took place under the Free Trade Agreement in 1989, Canadian meat packers complained that many of their shipments to the United States were turned away. Believing that the refused entries violated the FTA, the Canadian meat packing industry exerted its political power. Through the Canadian Meat Council, the principal meat packing trade association and one of the most powerful Canadian lobby groups, the industry made its dissatisfaction known to high-level Canadian officials.
Deputy Prime Minister Mazankowski responded to the industry's pressure in an address to the Canadian Meat Council earlier this year. "We expected fewer hassles [because of the FTA]," he said, "but we appear to be getting more. It is becoming increasingly bothersome. We will reply in kind. We are preparing an arsenal of ammunition to deal with these problems." Mazankowski's "ammunition" includes increasing inspection of U.S. meat imports, bans on specific imports and countervailing actions or appeals under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
The Canadian Ministry of Agriculture also addressed itself to the problem. An internal ministry memorandum marked "confidential" states, "Reinspection of Canadian meat products exported to the United States at the border has been an irritant since its implementation on January 1, 1989. Pressure has been exerted on the USDA at all levels to resolve the issue."
The threats and pressure had the desired effect. Less than one month after Mazankowski's speech before the Council — despite the high rate of refused entry meats found by U.S. inspectors — Yeutter and Mazankowski announced their agreement to open the border for meat trade.
PSAC's Coates told Multinational Monitor that "high-priced" lobbyists from the Canadian Meat Council leaned on the Canadian government to end inspection programs for both countries. He believes that the integrity of the U.S. and Canadian inspection programs is at stake, and thinks it a good sign that inspectors from both programs are taking a strong stand against the new border policy. But the inspectors alone cannot protect the public. Perrault contends that USDA inspectors are afraid to speak out. He claims that "two to three more inspectors would come forth if they didn't fear retaliation from their superiors." Lehman agrees, adding that he expects retribution for going public. Being close to retirement, however, Lehman has less to lose than other inspectors who are just starting their careers.
Coates believes that government regulation is the key to assuring safe meat products in both countries. He says that eliminating border inspections opens up the market to poor quality and that competitive forces may pressure even the more responsible companies to lower their standards. "There has to be some kind of random check to make sure that the crooked companies are going to be kept honest," Coates says. "In any society, you can't just open up a border and not have problems." He points out that the bottom line with food products must be public health rather than the profit margin, and that cannot be guaranteed by industry self-regulation. "In the guise of free trade, they are entering into a precarious area.... We're talking about food going on the taxpayers' tables. You have the fly-by-night outfits that are going to do anything for the God almighty dollar."