Faulty Foot-And-Mouth Safeguards

The government's controls for foot-and-mouth disease are inadequate because of an antiquated record-keeping system at ports and poor communications between inspectors, investigators say.

At the height of the foot-and-mouth crisis in Europe, Agriculture Department officials in Baltimore erroneously approved a shipment of 122,670 pounds of pork ribs from Denmark, according to a report by USDA's inspector general, the agency's internal watchdog.

The ribs never made it into commerce because the shipment was caught by another set of USDA officials, the report said.

The inspector general found other cases, however, in which the department had trouble keeping track of prohibited meat products that were being held in quarantine.

The report said a manual record-keeping system used by the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service "cannot reliably track the status of shipments" on hold at ports.

The report also cited poor communications between APHIS, which enforces import regulations, and USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, which is responsible for inspecting meat.

In one case, 32,000 pounds of imported sausage casings en route from APHIS to FSIS in Houston was shipped instead to a commercial warehouse in San Antonio. About one-sixth of the shipment was eventually found to be prohibited product and destroyed.

In another case, 260,000 pounds of prohibited meat products was found stored in an unsecured area of a USDA warehouse in Elizabeth, N.J.

USDA officials say they are improving coordination between the inspection services and are looking into setting up a central computer system for tracking products that are being held at ports.

"They're doing a lot of coordination and a lot of communication ... but we need to continue to invest and review these programs to make sure we are keeping" foot-and-mouth out of the country, USDA spokesman Kevin Herglotz said Tuesday.

Foot-and-mouth is harmless to humans but can devastate a country's livestock industry because herds are destroyed to prevent its spread. The disease can be spread through infected meat products and on people, animals and vehicles.

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