U.S. Finishes Investigation of Ineligible Veal Shipment to Japan

By Susan Krause
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has completed an investigation into why a shipment of veal that failed to meet the standards of a bilateral export agreement was sent to Japan in January, Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns says.

Johanns released a comprehensive 475-page report February 17 detailing the results of the investigation and USDA's response. 

"The thoroughness of this report demonstrates just how serious we are about addressing this incident and providing assurance to our trading partners that our system is among the best in the world," he said.  "I believe our actions fully address the facts that led to this incident and provide added protections on a broader scale to prevent similar problems in the future." 

A USDA news release said the report examined "unique circumstances" surrounding the incident.

The problem arose in the first U.S. shipment of veal to Japan since Japan ended a two-year ban and reopened its market to U.S. beef products.  

Japan banned imports of U.S. beef in December 2003 after a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow disease) was discovered in the state of Washington in a single cow of Canadian origin.  After lengthy negotiations, the two countries reached a compromise agreement in December 2005 that allowed for the resumption of U.S. exports to Japan of boneless beef and beef products from cattle less than 30 months of age.  (See related article.) 

USDA undertook the investigation when Japan decided to reinstate its import ban because of the ineligible shipment, which contained intact vertebral column and veal offal.  (See related article.)

The investigation concluded that the shipment posed no threat to human health. 

Veal only recently was added to the bilateral export agreement, according to the investigation report, and only two plants were certified to ship veal to Japan.  The report attributed mistakes to both the plants and the USDA inspectors.

The plants were removed from the list of certified shippers before any other shipments were sent, USDA said.

The Japanese government has received a copy of the report, which is broken into two parts:  results of an investigation by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and results of an audit by USDA's inspector general.  The findings in the two parts - five from the investigation and six from the audit - closely match. 

In response to the incident and the report's findings, USDA is increasing efficiency and strengthening protections by: 

• Providing additional mandatory training for FSIS inspectors to improve their understanding of U.S. export agreements and the export verification program of the department's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS);

• Granting final export certifications only where in-plant inspectors have undergone additional training in order to improve coordination between FSIS and AMS;

• Requiring plants to maintain separate lists of products that they are certified to ship to particular countries, rather than permitting blanket export certifications, and to make these lists readily available to USDA inspectors;   

• Mandating that USDA inspectors be informed of changes in plants' export certifications at three different stages of the certification process - application for certification, audit and certification or de-listing; and

• Requiring two signatures on every shipment of beef for export unless a trading partner indicates that only one signature is necessary.

The full text of USDA's news release, an audio file of a press briefing by Johanns and the text of the report (PDF, 65 pages), minus its appendices, can be found on USDA's Web site.