Nov. 17, 2015
Docket Clerk, USDA, FSIS
Patriots Plaza 3
1400 Independence Ave. SW
Mail Stop 3782, Room 8—163A
Washington, DC 20250-3700
 
RE: Docket Number FSIS-2012-0028
 
The North Dakota Stockmen’s Association (NDSA) is an 86-year-old statewide beef industry organization representing more than 3,000 cattlemen and women. Our organization appreciates the chance to comment concerning the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) proposed rule to add Namibia to the list of countries whose meat inspection system is equivalent to the system for boneless (not ground) raw beef products that the United States has established under the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) and its implementing regulations.
 
The NDSA supports trade, level playing fields and utilizing science-based standards to facilitate international trade. We believe that every effort should be made to develop an integrated domestic-foreign trade policy that encourages reciprocity, elimination of unfair trade restrictions and a movement toward private enterprise and free markets. At the same time, our organization is strongly committed to ensuring the continued health and well-being of the U.S. cattle herd and to producing safe and wholesome beef products for consumers.
 
We are very concerned about this proposal, especially considering the recent outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) in the area of Namibia north of the Veterinary Cordon Fence (VCF) and the fact that USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) last visited Namibia 12 years ago to verify its animal health status. It would be irresponsible to implement this rule without up-to-date site visits that verify the country’s animal health status and ensure that meat can be exported without subjecting the United States to the risk of FMD, a highly contagious and economically devastating disease.
 
We urge you to reject this rule until all collateral issues related to food safety and animal health can be completely addressed and updated information concerning the animal health status of the zone south of the VCF in Namibia is obtained.  
 
Namibia is situated in southwestern Africa, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on the west, Angola and Zambia to the north, Botswana to the east and the Republic of South Africa to the south. Regionalization for the purpose of export of deboned fresh beef to the United States covers an area in Namibia south of a VCF running from west to east of the country at about 20 degrees south latitude. This zone has been recognized by the World Organization for Animal Health as a FMD-free zone without vaccination since 1997. The United States has recognized the same zone south of the VCF in Namibia as a zone free of FMD without vaccination since 2006.
 
The VCF was established in 1954 to protect cattle against FMD infection from roaming native, African buffalo. The fence is constructed of high tensile steel wire and is 8 feet, 6 inches tall, spanning the width of Namibia and extending into Botswana. Veterinary control posts are positioned along the fence between the north and south zones of Namibia and serve as control points for movements of animals and animal products. Movement of meat is allowed from south to north and from east to west. Meat is not allowed to move from north to south or from west to east across the VCF from regions classified as FMD infected.
 
The VCF has attracted criticism from several groups in Namibia. Wildlife advocates argue that the fence disrupts natural wildlife patterns for species native to the area and attribute wildlife death during the drought to the inability of wildlife to obtain adequate access to water sources as a result of the VCF. Socially, some individuals in Namibia see the VCF as a separation of white colonial Africa from indigenous black Africa. The current Minister of Agriculture, John Mutorwa, has made public comments about his desire to remove the VCF.
 
The area of Namibia north of the VCF has been battling outbreaks of FMD for the past year. In December 2014, an FMD outbreak was reported in cattle in Caprivi in the infected zone, which is north of the VCF. The infected zone is endemically infected with FMD due to the presence of enzootic FMD in free-roaming African buffalo. In January 2015, an outbreak of FMD was also reported in cattle in Kavango, Namibia, also located in the zone north of the VCF. Subsequently, outbreaks of FMD occurred in the Namibian regions of Ohangwena, Oshikoto and Omusati in May, June and July 2015. Within the zone north of the VCF, there have been more than 20 reports of individual location outbreaks of FMD since December 2014. The neighboring countries to Namibia, Angola and Botswana have also reported outbreaks of FMD within the past year.
 
In April 2005, APHIS completed a risk analysis for the region in Namibia that lies south of the VCF concerning FMD and rinderpest. The risk analysis was based on a site visit by APHIS in 2003 and animal health documentation submitted by Namibia.
Namibia’s animal health situation appears to have experienced changes, and new concerns have arisen since those site visits. In the past 11 months, numerous outbreaks of FMD have occurred in Namibia in the zone north of the VCF. In 2013, an audit by the European Commission (EC) was carried out in Namibia in the zone south of the VCF to evaluate the animal health control system and, in particular, the controls on FMD. The 2013 EC audit showed insufficient implementation and documentation of actions following the incursion of FMD-positive buffalo in the disease-free zone. Breaches to the integrity of the VCF were also reported close to Etosha Park (a buffalo-free game park in the protection zone) due to wild animals and humans. The 2013 EC audit also noted that the movement protocol for small ruminants from the protection-zone to the free-zone did not comply with the OIE recommendations for movement of animals from an infected zone or from a zone using vaccination. Furthermore, the OIE PVS Pathway program, which is a global program for the sustainable improvement of a country’s veterinary service compliance with OIE standards, published their PVS evaluation of Namibia in 2008 and noted multiple deficiencies. The 2008 PVS evaluation commented on traceability problems north of the VCF; a lack of collaboration between ministries of health and ministries of agriculture; deficits in the overall budget for the central laboratory services; and little presence of veterinary services in the local abattoirs compared to the “exporting” abattoirs.  
 
A foreign country’s inspection system must be evaluated by FSIS before receiving eligibility to export meat and meat products to the United States. This evaluation consists of a document review and an on-site audit of the inspection program. Once eligible to export meat and meat products, countries must renew certifications of slaughter establishments annually. Under FMIA, all meat and meat products imported into the United States must be produced under standards for safety, wholesomeness and laboratory accuracy that are equivalent to those standards of the United States. Additionally, slaughter procedures must be consistent with the United States Humane Methods of Slaughter Act and Title 9 of the Code of Federal Regulations.

     The exporting country’s inspection system must also impose requirements equivalent to the United States. A document review of the exporting country by FSIS focuses on the following equivalency components:

• Government Oversight.
• Statutory Authority and Food Safety Regulations.
• Sanitation.
• HACCP Systems.
• Chemical Residue Testing Programs.
• Microbiological Testing Programs.
 
Following a satisfactory document review in 2006, FSIS began a series of equivalency audits for Namibia’s zone south of the VCF and performed audits in 2006, 2009, 2013 and 2014. FSIS concluded in 2014 that Namibia had met the equivalence criteria to export fresh, boneless, not-ground beef from the zone south of the VCF to the United States.
 
In reviewing the results of FSIS equivalency audits (2006-2014) for the zone south of the VCF in Namibia, however, a consistent pattern of deficiencies appeared in the areas of government oversight, HACCP systems, statutory authority and food safety regulations, sanitation and chemical residue and microbiological testing programs. While Namibia seemed able to provide corrective action that addressed previous problems revealed in FSIS audit findings, the country also seemed to be unable to prevent new systemic deficiencies from occurring within the equivalence components. The EC audits of the zone south of the VCF in Namibia for control over the production of fresh meat intended for export to the European Union showed significant deficiencies over the same time period. This raises significant concern for Namibia’s ability to satisfactorily and consistently implement the requirements for an equivalent meat inspection system.
 
For these reasons, the NDSA is very concerned about this rule and calls upon you to reject it.
 
Thank you for the opportunity to comment. If you have any questions, feel free to contact us at (701) 223-2522.
 
Sincerely,
 

Steve Brooks
President
 
    
 
North Dakota Stockmen's Association * 407 S. 2nd St. * Bismarck, ND 58504 * 701-223-2522 * ndsa@ndstockmen.org