February 25, 2004

 

 

US Ban French Processed Meat On Hygiene Concerns

 

The United States banned imports of all French processed meat and poultry products, including cold cuts and delicacies like foie gras on Tuesday, as the meat did not comply with the US hygiene standards.

 

U.S. experts who inspected plants in France starting last month said they didn't conform with U.S. food safety requirements. Officials of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service found the sanitation systems failed to meet U.S. standards, said Steve Cohen, a department spokesman.

 

Cohen did not say what the problems were, only that officials believe the move is "vital to ensuring the continued protection and confidence of the public."

 

Before the plants can resume exports, France will have to show the USDA it has improved its food safety system and that it meets U.S. standards, Cohen said.

 

French officials present during the inspections found no problems, the French Agriculture Ministry said.

 

"France shares neither the observations of the American authorities nor the conclusions they felt should be taken," the ministry said in a statement.

 

The measure concerns only processed products, not ordinary cuts of beef, pork or poultry, Agriculture Ministry press officer Severin Naudet said.

 

Rillettes, a coarsely chopped pate in which fat is added, is another product that falls under the measure, he said. Such delicacies can sometimes harbor harmful bacteria and have occasionally been linked to outbreaks of listeria poisoning, which causes high fevers, severe headaches and nausea. It can be potentially fatal to people with weak immune systems.

 

Naudet also said he could not provide specifics on what the exact U.S. complaints were. Cohen said the U.S. inspectors did not do bacterial inspections during their visits.

 

Before the decision, only 11 companies in France had official clearance to export meat products to the United States. The inspections from Jan. 15 to Feb. 5 focused on those companies and on regional veterinary offices that oversee the sites.

 

Agriculture Minister Herve Gaymard has been in frequent contact with U.S. officials and hopes to find a way to resolve the problem "as soon as possible," the statement added. He is also working closely with David Byrne, the European Union's health and consumer affairs commissioner.

 

A high-level Agriculture Ministry delegation and French veterinary officials went to Washington on Monday to explain what France has done over the past several months to respond to the "specific requirements" of the U.S. system, the statement said. It did not give details.

 

The ministry said that U.S. authorities felt France does not conform with a U.S. meat safety program called the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point, or HACCP. The system requires bacterial inspections and a trail of documenting paperwork.

 

The bans would have only a minor impact on U.S. consumers, said John Roberts, president of the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, based in New York City, which includes sellers of imported foods.

 

"Most of the fresh foie gras (Americans) have been consuming has probably been coming out of the New York Hudson Valley anyhow," Roberts said. "As to the cold cuts, I'm not recalling a lot of French cold cuts being part of my regular life here in the States."