HERMOSILLO, Mexico -- For years, this city's Carnes Valmo packing plant sold raw beef to U.S. consumers based on an untested assumption: a belief that the plant and its Mexican overseers could guarantee the meat was wholesome and safe.
The arrangement worked until U.S. inspectors paid a rare visit to the plant in May 1999. Greeted by filth and flies, the visitors cut off trade at once -- or thought they did.
"Shanks and briskets [were] contaminated with feces," a U.S. Department of Agriculture official later wrote of his tour of the plant floor. In the refrigerator, he wrote, "A disease-condemned carcass was observed ready for boning and distribution in commerce."
But even before the U.S. team left for home, Mexican officials went to work to restore Carnes Valmo's right to sell meat to Americans. Over the following months the plant regained its export license, switched owners and changed its name, yet the USDA never returned. Instead, the agency relied on Mexico as the primary enforcer of U.S. sanitation laws -- a standard flunked by five out of 10 Mexican plants visited by U.S. inspectors that spring.
Three months ago, the Bush administration ordered increased scrutiny of Mexican beef after uncovering evidence of more problems. But the Carnes Valmo incident exposes a blind spot at USDA, the agency that bears new food safety responsibilities in the wake of Sept. 11. In protecting nearly 4 billion pounds of meat imported each year, the USDA increasingly relies on foreign governments -- including ones that have repeatedly failed to get the job done.
The USDA once based its own inspectors overseas, but it now operates under trade agreements and universal standards that seek to make a meat inspection in Mexico or Brazil equivalent to a "USDA-inspected" stamp at home. The agency may inspect foreign meatpackers, but on average it visits a foreign plant only once every three to five years. Even when it discovers serious flaws, it rarely returns to ensure that problems are fixed, according to agency records and interviews with dozens of inspectors and food-safety experts.
Whether anyone has gotten sick from tainted imported meat is impossible to say, for this reason: Under a policy supported by U.S. meatpackers and the USDA, retailers are allowed to mix imported meat with domestic brands and disclose nothing to consumers about the meats' origins.
"When you get results like these, there must be follow-up -- or else it's just 'catch me if you can,' " said Ben Cohen, senior attorney for the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, which tracks USDA overseas audits.
The USDA says imported meat is safe -- safer, in fact, than many domestic foods, because it undergoes two inspections: one in the host country and another random check at the U.S. border. "It's inspected once, twice -- sometimes even three times, since a great majority of the meat goes on for further processing in USDA-inspected establishments in the United States," said John C. Prucha, a veterinarian and the assistant deputy administrator for program coordination at the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
These assurances are countered by inspection reports and interviews with former overseas inspectors. They suggest the current system cannot guarantee protection against common food-borne diseases, let alone a deliberate attack on the food supply.
"During this time of biological terrorism, it should not escape us that we receive large quantities of raw, frozen beef from underdeveloped countries," said Stanley Johnson, a veterinarian and USDA supervisor who audited Latin American meat plants in the mid-1990s.
Since Sept. 11, the Bush administration has moved to bolster defenses against bioterrorism attacks on food and agriculture, including contamination of imported meat. Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman, speaking last month to USDA workers, said the administration would "do everything we can do protect the food supply," from hiring additional border inspectors to installing X-ray machines to check for tampering.
The USDA contends that imported meat is safe under the existing system, and the additional safeguards will make it even safer. The agency's 2003 budget plan provides no additional funds to increase in-country inspections of the 1,200 foreign plants that supply nearly 10 percent of the red meat Americans consume.
"Our system is the model for the world -- and the most stringent in the world," said Elsa A. Murano, the USDA's undersecretary for food safety.
But Murano, a biologist who has traveled extensively in Latin American, acknowledged that several countries have struggled to meet U.S. standards because they lack access to technology and training. Even before the attacks, senior USDA officials were looking for ways to plug gaps in foreign inspections after an internal audit found "material weaknesses" in oversight.
The USDA's inspector general, in a June 2000 report, faulted the agency for allowing some countries to skimp on certain requirements, including mandatory testing for dangerous chemicals and food-borne bacteria. The report said a third of the countries supplying meat to the United States that year had not fully complied with regulations that U.S. meatpackers must meet.
The inspector general's report and other agency records also are critical of the USDA's response in dealing with friendly governments after serious sanitation problems are found. In 1999, the USDA rejected a request by its own inspectors for emergency action after half of the Mexican meat plants visited that year were cited for serious sanitation problems.
The problems have drawn criticism from members of Congress as well as consumer groups. Last year, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) asked President Bush to press Mexican President Vicente Fox for improvements in Mexican meat production.
"USDA's inspection data from Mexican plants should serve as an urgent call for immediate action," Kaptur wrote. A year after her Feb. 14, 2001, letter, the administration had not responded.
Mexican Plants Fail
Perhaps more than any other country, Mexico has struggled to comply with the USDA's 1997 upgrades in meat-safety standards. More than 30 percent of the plants inspected by U.S. officials in the last three years have failed outright. The most spectacular failure was Carnes Valmo, which flunked virtually every category.
The low-slung complex on the outskirts of Sonora's dusty capital of Hermosillo slaughters both cattle and hogs, which share a smelly, fly-infested stockyard. One year after the USDA inspection, the company was bought and renamed, Carnes Genpro. Victor Villa Garcia, Genpro's general director, said the new owners invested heavily to improve conditions and refocused their marketing effort toward Asia. The company no longer sells meat to the United States.
According to USDA records, Carnes Valmo's violations started when workers failed to perform a mandatory sanitation check at the start of slaughter. The problems continued to the final cooler, where the U.S. visitors found the carcass with septicemia, a bacterial blood infection, marked for boning and packing.
The audit noted "paint and viscera containers, condensation from dirty surfaces dripping into the exposed product. . . . Work boots contact (carcasses)." The plant was cited for using company-paid employees to perform the work of government inspectors.
Similar deficiencies were observed at other plants in May 1999 and in a second round of November inspections. Auditors expressed frustration over the inability of some plant officials to make improvements. "Even after the auditor pointed out the unacceptable situation, the contaminated product still was not reconditioned properly," one official wrote.
Poor results in the second audit prompted the urgent request for a review of all 37 Mexican plants licensed to export meat to the United States. Audit team leader Gary D. Bolstad cited the "nature, extent and degree" of the sanitation problems, many of which had been documented in previous visits.
In the end, the USDA not only decided against authorizing the special review, but also declined to send any inspectors to Mexico until November 2000.
"We didn't get around to it for almost a year," acknowledged Prucha, the USDA official. "It was a matter of priorities. We were looking at all our countries, not just Mexico."
In recent interviews, Mexican agriculture officials defended the safety and quality of meat exports, while conceding that some processors lacked technical sophistication. They predicted rapid industry improvements as cross-border trade expands under the North American Free Trade Agreement. NAFTA already has ignited a succession of acquisitions and mergers involving large U.S. meatpackers in Mexico.
"The meat trade had been decreasing here, but with NAFTA there are real possibilities for the future," said Leocadio Luis Aguayo Aguilar, a cattleman and Sonora's state agriculture secretary.
Recognizing an opportunity apparently has not translated into reforms. This past November, USDA officials visited Mexico again and failed three plants, prompting the Bush administration to order a reinspection of all Mexican meat at the U.S. border, at least through May.
"We want to trust, but we must also verify," said the USDA's Murano.
French Foie Gross
Developing countries such as Mexico are not the only ones struggling to meet U.S. standards. Some of wealthiest and oldest U.S. trading partners have similar trouble.
At almost precisely the same time U.S. auditors were documenting sanitation problems in Mexico, other officials were flagging failures in French meatpacking plants. Inspectors found serious problems at 13 of 19 French companies inspected in the spring of 1999. Seven plants failed outright and were temporarily barred from exporting meat.
Like their Mexican counterparts, French companies also were cited for fecal contamination and for allowing dirty water to drip onto raw products -- two problems most likely to spread bacteria.
In many French plants, "personal hygiene . . . left much to be desired," the USDA reports said. Employees at seven plants were accused of not washing their hands after touching contaminated meat or using lavatories.
It was also in France that inspectors encountered violations of humane-slaughter laws designed to minimize animals' pain and suffering. Although U.S. regulations require that livestock are first "stunned" or rendered insensible to pain before being butchered, U.S. auditors found three plants that were stunning improperly or not at all.
In one factory that produced foie gras, ducks and geese had been butchered without stunning for two months because of broken equipment, the report said.
In the case of the French, however, there was no hint in USDA documents of further reviews or sanctions. There was no suggestion, for example, that U.S. auditors might look for problems at 17 other French plants that weren't inspected that year.
This apparent disconnect between policy and practice was the primary target of the 2000 report by USDA Inspector General Roger C. Viadero. He concluded that the USDA was failing to enforce its own rules, extending a welcome to imports and countries that had not been able or willing to meet U.S. standards.
Viadero found that 19 out of 36 U.S. trading partners had exported meat to the United States, even though their meat-sanitation programs fell short in key areas, such as testing for chemical residues. Six countries were approved before the USDA had physically arrived to conduct inspections.
The inspector general found no evidence that the agency's policies had allowed unsanitary meat to enter the country. But USDA records showed that seven plants that failed inspection had continued exporting meat to the United States anyway, the result of a breakdown in record-keeping and communication, Viadero wrote. Those plants shipped nearly 5 million pounds of red meat and poultry to U.S. ports before the problem was caught.
To Stanley Johnson, the former overseas auditor and USDA meat inspector, the government's discovery of the 5 million pounds amounts to a lucky near-miss.
"Some countries will only be good as we require them to be," Johnson said. "That's why it's important -- why it's critical -- that we send them the strongest possible message."
© 2002The Washington Post Company