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Free Trade Blues

October 15, 1992|DANIEL P. PUZO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An unsettling preview of what may await consumers under the recently signed North American Free Trade Agreement is documented in a new study by the Government Accounting Office. The subject is the joint Canadian-American food safety effort that resulted from the 1989 free trade agreement between the two countries. The GAO says the agreement is riddled with regulatory weaknesses, national inequities and scientific inconsistencies.

In the latest installment in its series of reports entitled, "Food Safety and Quality," the GAO, which conducts research for Congress, reports that, while safety standards have improved somewhat since the inception of the U.S.-Canada agreement, many concerns still exist.

One billion pounds of meat and poultry are traded annually between the United States and Canada. Prior to 1989, every shipment of Canadian meat entering this country was subject to inspection by employees of the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). After the signing of the 1989 free trade agreement, a more random, less intense inspection program was inaugurated. This led to charges that inferior, and sometimes contaminated, Canadian meat was entering U.S. retail channels.

Even though USDA and its Canadian counterpart, Agriculture Canada, have attempted to improve the situation, the GAO still found numerous deficiencies.

Among the problems:

* Doubt remains that the Canadian meat inspection system is "at least equal to" the U.S. program, as is required by American law for any of the 40 nations exporting meat into this country.

* FSIS does not know how many drugs are approved for use on Canadian livestock, swine and poultry. Even so, GAO researchers discovered that Canada uses seven drugs banned in the United States, including three that are suspected carcinogens, on meat-producing animals and fowl.

* FSIS does not adequately test Canadian meats for legally administered animal drugs and is even more lax in its detection efforts for banned substances in imported meats.

* Canada and the United States use entirely different methods to test for Listeria monocytogenes, a harmful bacteria that can contaminate ready-to-eat products such as hot dogs or deli meats.

* The Canadians, under the free trade agreement, inspect twice as many shipments as their U.S. counterparts. For the past three years, the GAO reports, Canada has inspected about 46% of the U.S. meat shipments crossing its borders. By comparison, only 19% of the Canadian meat and poultry shipments are inspected by U.S. officials. The disparity can be construed as an artificial trade barrier biased against American product.

"As long as there are differences between countries' inspection systems, the potential exists for a food safety problem to expand beyond an individual incident to implicate a country's entire (food) industry as well as shake consumer confidence," the GAO states.

Jim Greene, FSIS spokesman in Washington, says the agency received the GAO report only recently and is not "in a position to make any extensive comments about the findings."

"It's the same story," says Lou Schuster, GAO's senior assignment manager in Washington. "Government agencies don't have adequate (laboratory) tests; they don't test for enough drugs, and the technology they use is not advanced to the point where they can do some of these tests."

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader, among others, has been critical of the U.S.-Canada free trade agreement recently claiming that it was "used to eliminate meat inspection at the border."

A meat industry representative disagrees. "The United States cannot mandate world (food) standards," says Rosemary Mucklow, executive director of the Western States Meat Assoc., which includes some Canadian firms. "If we find that another country's standards are equivalent to our's then we should accept their products and they should accept ours."

Mucklow says the different nature of the meat products being shipped is the reason there is such a disparity in the inspection rates between the two countries.

"We send them more processed (meat) products and they send us more carcass beef or boxed beef or pork," she says. "Statistical testing is different for different kinds of products. You look at a trailer carrying 40,000 pounds of burritos differently than you do one with 55 beef carcasses hanging in it."

The pending North American Free Trade Agreement brings Mexico into the picture. Initially, however, the volume of meat entering the U.S. from Mexico will be a fraction of the Canadian shipments; only a handful of Mexican processing or slaughter plants have been approved by USDA to ship product to this country.

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