A public notification issued by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) regarding the recall of nearly 200,000 pounds of chicken imported from Chile due to dioxin contamination exposes gaps in the USDA’s system for protecting the public. Consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch called on the USDA to explain several critical questions about its system for regulating imports, specifically:
- When did FSIS first learn of the problem and was there a lag in issuing a press release on the issue?
- What role did FSIS port-of-entry inspection procedures play in the identifying this problem?
- The 2012 audit of Chilean food safety system conducted by FSIS indicated that the Chilean food safety authority was bolstering its staff training on dioxin contamination in meat and poultry products. How long has dioxin contamination been an issue with imported products from Chile?
- According to the World Health Organization, “Dioxins are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer” and “due to the highly toxic potential of this class of compounds, efforts need to be undertaken to reduce current background exposure.” Therefore, why does FSIS not consider this particular case a serious public health concern? Why was the press release not a “recall” or a “public health alert” – a phrase that the agency has decided to use in recent months in the case of imported meat, poultry, and egg products – to accurately reflect the severity of the problem?
The 2007 equivalency determination made by FSIS on the Chilean food safety system for imported poultry showed the system was plagued by problems – causing the agency to perform a “do-over” since it was sloppy in its analysis (see here and here).
In addition, there have been other food safety issues with imported food products from Chile. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration currently has 15 Import Alerts posted on its website for various imported food products from Chile ranging from pesticide contamination on imported fruit to seafood containing high levels of methyl mercury.
Chile is part of the ongoing, closed-door trade negotiations to create the Trans-Pacific Partnership. “The Obama Administration needs to take note of the food safety issues plaguing Chile and it needs to ensure that food safety standards are not sacrificed to advance global trade in food,” said Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter.