The number of countries that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has visited for in-person inspections has plummeted over the last four years, as budget cuts have forced the agency to implement new inspection methods and rely on self-reporting by other nations. The number of countries the U.S. inspects in-person each year dropped to just three in 2011, and the average over the last four years has shrunk by 60 percent, Food Safety News reports:
Online documents show that from 2001 to 2008 FSIS inspectors were routinely evaluating, in-person, the foreign plants processing meat for American consumers. The number of countries audited annually, with only one exception (in 2006 there was a large drop in audits), was between 25 and 32, so FSIS was auditing an average of 26.4 countries per year. From 2009 to 2012, however, the number of countries audited annually dropped to between 3 and 20, so FSIS was auditing an average of 9.8 countries per year. [...]
By 2011, the number of countries audited by FSIS was down to just 3: Australia, New Zealand and Poland.
The Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) claims that its new system is a better way to evaluate food safety, but a source told Food Safety News that the changes came because of budget cuts. “The budget restrictions had pretty much forced the agency to re-evaluate the most cost-effective way to do audits,” the source said. Both President Obama and the GOP included cuts to FSIS in their budgets, and Republicans also included cuts to other food inspection agencies, like the Food and Drug Administration, even as E. Coli, salmonella, and other outbreaks have sickened thousands of Americans in recent years.
The number of audits in 2012 has increased to 11, according to Food Safety News, still far short of where it was during the Bush administration. If the reduction is indeed due to budget cuts, the savings aren’t likely to materialize: one out of six Americans suffer from a foodborne illness each year, with 128,000 resulting in hospitalization and 3,000 in death. Treating those illnesses costs the United States as $152 billion each year.