Following a review, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) calls for strengthening of the USDA’s process for evaluating foreign animal-health systems and the risk of introducing foot and mouth disease (FMD) from imported beef.

In their report, the GAO notes that federal regulations restrict fresh beef imports from countries where the disease is present because the virus can survive in untreated, uncooked beef, potentially leading to a costly outbreak of disease in U.S. herds. The GAO study examined how the USDA evaluates the animal-health systems in beef-exporting countries and how to improve that process.

The GAO found that the USDA’s process, administered through the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's (APHIS), currently involves five steps:

1.       A country requests that APHIS evaluate its animal health system.

2.       APHIS gathers information about the country's system, including documents identifying (1) veterinary control and oversight programs, (2) vaccination programs, (3) animal identification and movement controls, (4) laboratory diagnostic capabilities, and (5) animal-disease emergency-response measures.

3.       APHIS conducts in-country visits to verify and supplement this information.

4.       APHIS does a risk analysis to determine whether the country's beef products pose a risk to U.S. livestock and begins to draft a risk analysis report.

5.       APHIS determines an estimated risk level, which is included in the risk analysis report with a description of any mitigation measures the country must implement to ensure the safety of its beef exports. A report is completed and made public only for countries whose beef presents low risk. Countries whose beef poses a greater risk will not be eligible to export beef to the United States.

The report’s authors indicate APHIS could strengthen its evaluations by improving transparency to stakeholders. Currently, they note, APHIS does not direct staff to document their analysis of country information and include all problems and concerns identified and how they were resolved, effectively document results of in-country visits or indicate how to incorporate guidance on transparency into final risk analysis reports.

The GAO report provides three broad recommendations for steps the Secretary of Agriculture should take to improve USDA's evaluations of foreign countries' animal health systems.

1.       Direct the Administrator of APHIS to complete its efforts to develop agency guidance, clarifying that (1) staff must document, separately from the final risk analysis report, how key information gathered about a foreign country's animal health system was analyzed and how the information supports each of eight evaluation factors, and (2) in-country site visits must be appropriately and consistently documented in trip reports and should detail verification activities

2.       Direct the Administrator of APHIS to complete its efforts to develop an information management system to better store, organize, and manage documentation gathered about a foreign country's animal health system.

3.       Direct the Administrator of APHIS to develop guidance promoting greater transparency in risk analysis reports in accordance with the quality information guidelines issued by USDA's Chief Information Officer and guidance from the Office of Management and Budget.

The full report is available online from the GAO.