WASHINGTON -- The Agriculture Department has been lax in guarding the food supply from potentially unsafe imported meat, an internal audit says.
From 1999 to 2001, the agency allowed in 823,632 pounds of meat from foreign plants that might have been prohibited from trading, said the report by USDA's inspector general released this week.
Of that, 66,299 pounds were from processors unapproved for shipping products to the United States, the report said.
Auditors said they were uncertain if the remaining meat was safe and came from approved exporters because the department failed to turn in enough records.
Overseas processors can be barred from shipping meat to the United States if they fail to comply with U.S. food safety laws or an animal disease outbreak is under way in the country of origin.
Some of the questionable meat was from plants "located in Argentina, Uruguay, the United Kingdom and Italy, four countries that had outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001," the audit said.
Although foot-and-mouth disease cannot infect humans, it can easily spread among farm animals, such as cattle, pigs and sheep. An outbreak can cost a country billions of dollars in losses, including lost food sales.
The auditors asked USDA officials to turn over records to prove where the meat came from and whether it was safe.
In addition, they said the department has yet to carry out some recommendations from a June 2000 audit. The agency hasn't improved how it tracks imported products and has failed to implement annual checks whether countries are complying with U.S. food safety requirements, the report said.
In response, Garry McKee, administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service, wrote that it was impossible to give the auditors records of where the more than 820,000 pounds of imported meat came from because the agency doesn't have them anymore.
It keeps paperwork for this year and the past two years, he said.
Despite that, McKee said, "FSIS generally agrees with the recommendations outlined in the report."
He pledged that inspectors will improve the tracking system by September. Officials also will monitor suppliers to make sure they meet food safety requirements, he said.
On the Net: Food Safety and Inspection Service: http://www.fsis.usda.gov