US consumer group stirring up trouble over Australia's privatised meat inspection system

Thursday, 24 October, 2013

Australia is one of the largest meat exporters to the US, exporting more than 250 million kilos of red meat products to the US in 2010. Since 1999, USDA has officially considered Australia to have an equivalent meat-inspection system to the US and the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service’s (FSIS) Federal Register Notice (76-FR- 11752 - 11755) gives a green light to a privatised inspection system for all Australian beef, sheep and goat products exported to the United States.

Six months ago, US consumer group Food and Water Watch starting claiming that Australia’s meat inspection system could compromise US consumer safety. The group asserted that food safety is a government public health function and that consumers expect a food inspection system to be free from industry influence and to employ independent government inspectors who are well trained and can protect the public without industry intimidation.

“We fear that FSIS is playing Russian Roulette with US consumers,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director, Food & Water Watch, last March. “FSIS made a mistake to approve MSEP in 1999 and it is making a major error in judgement to approve the expansion of Australia’s privatisation efforts now. We strongly urge that the agency reconsider its approval of meat products inspected under MSEP [Meat Safety Enhancement Program].”

Now, six months later, Food & Water Watch is claiming that the problems with the privatised inspection system have not improved and that the system has led to an increase in import rejections of unsafe Australian meat.

The group also claims to have proof that the European Union has rejected Australia’s export system based on the policy that current EU regulations do not permit inspectors that are paid by the meat processors.

Background to the privatisation of the inspection system

In the late 1990s, Australia devised the MSEP, which removed most government inspectors from slaughter lines and replaced them with company-paid inspectors.

The first company to use the privatised inspection system was Gympie-based Nolan Meats, which began exporting to US, Japan and South Korea under the system in 2008.

Before commencing to export under the new inspection system, Nolan Meats participated in rigorous and extensive trials which included increased microbiological assessment along with process and product verification activities carried out by the company as well as fortnightly AQIS audits. To satisfy US legal requirements, an AQIS-employed inspector was place at the end of the production chain to provide US-required “carcase by carcase inspection by a government official”. This program formed the basis of what has now become known as The Australian Export Meat Inspection System (AEMIS).

With AEMIS, responsibility is placed on company-employed, AQIS Authorised Officers to undertake inspection functions against the Australian Standards. The meat company provides its own dedicated staff to complete the inspections and so takes ownership and responsibility for its meat quality and safety. It is estimated that the system can save the federal government approximately $30 million annually.

AEMIS Version 8

According to the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF), AEMIS is an integrated set of controls specified and verified by government that ensures the safety, suitability and integrity of Australian meat and meat products. Underpinning AEMIS are objective hygiene and performance standards which are continually monitored. A DAFF veterinarian is responsible for ante-mortem inspection and verification of post-mortem inspection and processor hygiene practices.

Post-mortem inspection is delivered either by DAFF officials called Food Safety Meat Assessors (FSMAs) or Australian Government Authorised Officers (AAOs - formerly known as AQIS Authorised Officers). The latter are employed by the establishment but are legally bound to DAFF to perform inspections in accordance with a detailed set of DAFF controlled instructions. An FSMA will assist the veterinarian in performing verification activities. An additional roving FSMA will be available for facilities with a larger verification workload. FSMAs and AAOs are subject to ongoing performance verification against national performance standards and the results are recorded in a national database. Where AAOs perform post-mortem inspection on cattle, sheep and goat establishments, all carcases are subject to assessment by an FSMA.

The Australian Standard for the Hygienic Production and Transportation of Meat and Meat Products for Human Consumption (AS4696) requires that a suitably qualified meat safety inspector performs post-mortem inspection and make decisions on each carcase and its carcase parts (any tissue or structure removed from a carcase and includes head, viscera and blood).

AAOs are bound to DAFF through a ‘Deed of Obligations’, have appropriate qualifications and must be assessed as capable prior to being appointed to the position of an authorised officer.

Under AEMIS, meat safety inspectors (AAOs and FSMAs) performing post-mortem duties must have an MTM30307/MTM30311 Certificate III in Meat Processing (Meat Safety) qualification and attain an MTM 40211 Certificate IV Meat Processing (Meat Safety) qualification within 12 months of appointment.

Establishments may choose to utilise staff in a training capacity prior to becoming an AAO. If this is the case, an individual may gain practical experience in the AAO role on the chain providing the following is in place:

  • There is an appointed AAO at each existing inspection point undertaking formal inspection and disposition of all carcase and carcase parts and
  • the trainee AAO is under the direct supervision of that AAO and is not making a sole disposition on carcase and carcase parts and
  • all inspection and decisions pertaining to the inspection process on carcase and carcase parts are made by the AAO, FSMA or OPV if/as required.

Processors continue to be responsible for the hygienic operations of their facilities. Their ability to operate hygienically is verified through assessment against DAFF performance standards with the results being recorded in a national database.

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