A meaty new report from Food Safety News has me feeling a little sick, and I don’t even eat the stuff.

Photo by Nick Castonguay.

Since 2008, the number of countries audited by the U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has declined sharply, down by more than 60 percent. Only three countries were audited last year — visited in person by FSIS officials, who do a thorough pat down of operations and equipment — compared to 30 in 2008 (infographic!).

From Food Safety News:

In-country audits are part of what the agency often calls a “triad of protection” for imported meat and poultry. First, USDA must establish “equivalency,” determining that the importing country has a food safety system in place that’s on par with the U.S. system. Once a country is given the go-ahead (only 34 countries are currently approved), the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service continually monitors the safety of imported products through strict re-inspection at the port of entry, by testing for dangerous pathogens, and by conducting “ongoing audits” to ensure the countries are living up to their equivalency designation … According to interviews with former and current FSIS officials, the agency has, since 2008, been quietly changing its approach to foreign audits, making in-country visits far less frequent.

Instead of consistent audits, the FSIS has switched to a new system that relies on countries self-reporting to FSIS about their own meat problems. Because that doesn’t seem like a disaster waiting to happen for Americans who eat an average of 165 pounds of meat a year, and are getting much of it from Canada, which just saw 2.5 million pounds of beef recalled a few weeks ago.

So why the big change? The FSIS maintains that it’s because of a smarter new system of registering problems and has nothing to do with budgetary concerns — a claim disputed by a former official and source for the story.

“The budget restrictions had pretty much forced the agency to re-evaluate the most cost-effective way to do audits,” [the former official] said, noting that the agency is trying to transition to a more risk-based approach across the board …

Though FSIS officials object to calling the new approach “risk-based” – they refer to the new approach as “systems-based” – internal agency documents obtained by Food Safety News clearly show that FSIS has shifted to a “risk-based” system that relies more heavily on paperwork than annual in-country inspections …

FSIS officials argue that the new system is more sophisticated and replaces the old “cookie cutter” audits … The agency insists it has not backed off foreign inspection; it’s just being smarter about targeting audits to where the potential problems are.

Once again, the real burden of smarts is on consumers who might feel a little more comfortable with meats that are actually tested for E. coli before they sicken a bunch of people.