Food and mouth disease risk from exports: USDA reviewing system gets checkup

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Improved guidance and transparency are needed for USDA’s reviews of foreign animal health systems, says GAO program director. 

report released last week by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) reviewed USDA’s process for evaluating the animal health systems of countries seeking to export beef products to the US in a bid to a prevent foot and mouth disease (FMD) outbreak in the US, and how this process could be improved.

The US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is responsible for such evaluations.

The GAO said it analyzed documentation supporting seven countries’ requests for FMD animal health system evaluations. It also reviewed federal regulations, guidance, and a key trade agreement, as well as interviewing knowledgeable USDA and industry officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO said, currently, it can be hard to understand the factors considered in APHIS analytical approach. 

It is making three recommendations including that USDA clarify its guidance on how staff should document analysis of a foreign country’s animal health system and the results of in-country visits to verify information.

The USDA said it agreed with GAO’s recommendations and has described actions it is taking or plans to take to implement them. 

Several members of Congress had asked for such an audit, said Steve Morris, director of food safety and agriculture with the natural resources and environment team at GAO.

APHIS now has about a 60-day window to establish a process to address the issues raised in the recommendations, he told us.

“[The GAO review] was geared towards making the progress more transparent, so that other stakeholders and the public would be more aware [of procedures used], so it’s clear how they [at APHIS] come to a decision,” he said.

"It seems like the agency is moving pretty quick – I wouldn’t be surprised that we are able to close these out pretty soon," he added.

Foot and mouth disease 

FMD is a virus that causes painful lesions, making it difficult for livestock to stand or eat and greatly reducing meat and milk production. 

It is a viral contagion that can stay in an environment for several months and is transmitted among animals through contact with feed, air, soils, shipping containers and unprepared meat products, said the report authors.

An outbreak in the US, which has not seen the disease since 1929, could cost billions in losses and countries wanting to import untreated or raw beef products to the US must be approved.

Current practice

In the current review process, the country hoping to export to the US has to contact APHIS to ask for a review of their animal health system. APHIS then gathers information including documents on the veterinary control and oversight programs used; vaccination programs; animal identification and movement controls; laboratory diagnostic capabilities; and animal disease emergency response measures.

APHIS also does an in-country visit, completes a risk analysis to establish if beef products from the country being reviewed could pose a risk to US livestock and starts to generate a report, they said. An assessment is then made on estimated risk level, which is added to a risk analysis for the country along with any mitigating practices that would be required.

“APHIS guidance instructs staff to adhere to time frames for carrying out evaluations to ensure a lengthy process is completed efficiently,” the authors said. “But the guidance does not instruct staff how to ensure evaluations are fully transparent.”

Swill feeding case 

Staff also lack guidance on how to best document information from in-country visits, said the GAO.

For example, said the GAP report, APHIS and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) conducted a joint in-country site visit to Argentina in 2005. During that visit, the teams discovered that Argentina’s legislation regarding swill feeding was insufficient and that swill feeding regulations were not properly enforced. "These issues are documented in the CFIA's risk assessment report. The Canadian agency determined the risk to Canada from Argentina beef was acceptable, but recommended in the risk assessment report that Argentina take action to correct the deficiencies.

"In contrast, APHIS did not document any issues it may have found with Argentina’s swill feeding legislation or that the country’s failure to properly enforce swill feeding regulations had been resolved. Without a separate step linking documentation of deficiencies encountered to the risk analysis reports, there is no way to track such issues to their resolution."

The lack of detail makes it hard to understand how APHIS draws its conclusions, assesses the information provided and what may influence an analysis, said the GAO.  

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