BILLED as a world exclusive story, Reuters claimed last week that the US has been blocking a rising number of meat shipments from Australia since 2019 due to faecal contamination and that the matter is straining trade relations between the two countries.
The article went on to say that labour and food-safety groups attribute the problem to the privatisation of meat inspection, that is, replacement of government inspectors with company employees.
In Australia, post-mortem inspection tasks in export establishments may be carried out by government officials called Food Safety Meat Assessors (FSMAs) or Australian Government Authorised Officers (AAOs) employed by the establishment or by a department-approved third-party provider.
A government On Plant Veterinarian (OPV) is responsible for ante-mortem inspection and verification of post-mortem inspection and processor hygiene practices.
This arrangement was developed collaboratively between industry and government and is known as AEMIS (Australian Export Meat Inspection System). It fully satisfies importing country requirements for Australian government health certification.
With accelerated uptake in the past couple of years it would seem that renewed resistance to the privatisation of meat inspection systems is at the heart of the Reuters article.
The article states that Australia's Community and Public Sector Union is opposed to the semi-privatised system and quotes deputy national president Brooke Muscat saying that government inspection jobs have fallen by half since AEMIS was introduced and that Australian meatpackers will have replaced almost all federal inspectors by the end of 2022.
US consumer and environmental advocacy group Food & Water Watch (FWW) was also referenced for their opposition.
Staff attorney Zach Corrigan was quoted as saying that recent rejections were further evidence that these semi-privatised inspection systems are ineffective.
However the Reuters article did not portray the full extent of FWW's interest in this issue.
FWW has long been opposed to HACCP-based inspection programs.
In 2014 it submitted a citizen petition to the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) seeking to revoke equivalency to the US federal inspection system granted to Canadian, Australian and New Zealand inspection systems.
That petition remains open and on September 30, FWW wrote a supplementary letter to FSIS seeking immediate revocation of AEMIS because of this spike in contamination rejections.
It seems FWW extracted data on the contamination rejections from FSIS records under a Freedom of Information request and supplied that data to Reuters.
Reuters' review of that data identified 10 instances of contamination with "faeces or other digestive matter" in 2020 up from one in 2019 and four in 2018.
In contrast, the article claimed that Canada and New Zealand, also large meat exporters to the US, each had only one instance of similar contamination in 2020 and Mexico, another major supplier, had none.
By cross referencing FSIS and separate USDA data, Reuters claims to have identified the five Australian processors responsible for the contamination and named them in its article. Three are multi-species and two are dedicated sheepmeat operators.
However, while its data analysis would have identified the species involved, Reuters has chosen to leave this piece of information out.
Instead it has opted to head the story with a picture of cattle on a farm on Kangaroo Island.
It may be that beef is implicated in the detections or it may be that beef is not implicated at all in which case the implied involvement of beef from the picture would seem unfortunate if unintended and unfair if done deliberately.
But that does not detract from the seriousness of the central theme of increasing levels of contamination and their root cause.
While labour and food-safety advocacy groups may insist that privatisation of meat inspection is the cause, there is well-researched evidence to the contrary.
After its implementation in October 2011, AEMIS was comprehensively and independently reviewed with report and recommendations delivered in November 2019.
At that point, AEMIS uptake had progressed to the point where half of red meat establishments (accounting for about half of processing throughput) were using AAOs while the rest continued to use traditional government inspectors.
The report found no whole-of-market closures since 2011 and only a small number of point-of-entry rejections for varying reasons.
It concluded AAOs were delivering equivalent food safety and hygiene outcomes in post-mortem inspections.
As to the claim that US/Australia trade relations are strained over the rising incidence of rejections due to faecal contamination, the article itself provides a contradiction.
Reuters acknowledges a statement from FSIS downplaying the rejection data and stating that its inspection process "provides confidence in the safety of product from Australia that enters into US commerce".
Similarly the article states that Australia's Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE) has made a statement to Reuters that "Australian non-compliances remain very low both relative to Australia's total volume of meat and meat products exported and when compared to competitor trading partners".
Obviously there is concern over elevated rejection levels for this particular type of contamination as referenced in a DAWE memo that somehow came to Reuters' notice.
That in itself is unremarkable as DAWE would be expected to take a close interest in any such development but there is no suggestion in quoted excerpts from the memo that the increase in contamination and privatised meat inspection are related nor of a strain in relations over the issue between the US and Australia.
Gains in US market
MELBOURNE Cup is a reminder that the end of the processing year is approaching with the first of the scheduled Queensland plant shutdowns just four weeks away.
Cattle supply remains tight with a number of plants that were on five days now back to four and Qld grids unchanged from three weeks ago at 780-785c for four-tooth ox and 750c for heavy cow.
In the US, wholesale beef prices were up despite higher slaughter levels while imported lean beef continued to gain ground on supply uncertainty.
90CL was quoted up 4cents at US293c/lb FOB East Coast.