Hurricane Harvey and now Irma, with all their flooding and destruction, remind me of Hurricanes Katrina and Lee in 2005 when I was at the U.S. Department of Agriculture as the political appointee with oversight of the food safety system for the U.S.
And they remind me of how the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) overrules many humanitarian acts that come forward in natural disaster times.
In 2005, Katrina went on record as the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, and the fifth deadliest hurricane in our history.
Looking back on those days allows me to actually smile a little bit at some of the trials and tribulations that came about in the aftermath.
First of all, after Katrina, a call went out for friendly countries to come to our assistance in helping out the displaced and stranded residents of the New Orleans area, and that assistance came in the form of cash, supplies, personnel and, yes, food.
Some of the food was meat and poultry from other countries.
Some of those countries were not on the approved list of countries that could export meat and/or poultry to the U.S.
And some of the products were not approved products for export to the U.S. Stuff like baby food made from horse meat and duck liver pate’ were being flown to us to assist us in feeding New Orleans.
Most of the products were flown in Air Force cargo planes that landed at the Little Rock Arkansas Air Force Base, the closest facility to New Orleans.
When I first was made aware of the situation, we had a very large warehouse stacked to the ceiling with illegally imported meat and poultry products that was under lock and key and safe-guarded by Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) personnel committed to following the laws of the land as they related to food safety and, in particular, to international meat and poultry activities.
I was advised by those at a higher pay scale than mine that New Orleans residents would not go hungry if there was food in Little Rock to feed them.
Our top lawyers tried their hardest, but came to me and said, quite simply, that meat does not meet our FMIA standards, and cannot be let out of that warehouse to feed Americans.
Fortunately, my friends down the hall of the Jamie Whitten Building in D.C. advised me that we could get stores from the school lunch program into New Orleans immediately and set up “soup kitchens.”
One problem solved, but now what to do with the imported food, much of which were Meals Ready to Eat, affectionately known to the military as MREs?
The vegetarian meals were okay to send south, but many of the MREs were things like beef stroganoff, spaghetti and meatballs, and meat stews; meals where the meat could not be separated in any reasonable fashion.
All I will say is that we followed the air tight, and in this case ‘water tight’ FMIA, but the donated meals were not wasted.
As that issue was resolved satisfactorily, I got a call on a Saturday informing me that “we had another problem with food safety issues related to Katrina and Lee.”
I had been in enough leadership positions to know that that meant “you have another problem.”
As a bit of a preface, understand that many Americans displaced by these two hurricanes were being sheltered in the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas.
My “problem” was that the Mexican Army had crossed the Rio Grande with trucks loaded with raw chicken products, and had every intention of setting up a kitchen at the Alamo Mission to feed the temporary residents of the Alamodome, located just across the interstate.
I do not remember if they planned on feeding chicken soup or fried chicken at an old fashioned barbecue but that makes no difference. The poultry was illegal for two reasons, again reflecting air tight laws regulating imported meat and poultry products.
First of all, Mexico is not approved to export poultry products slaughtered in their facilities.
Secondly, none of this product passed through a port of inspection at the border. As required by our laws, all meat and poultry products exported to the U.S., with one exception, must be inspected by FSIS personnel stationed at a port of inspection or border crossing.
Clearly that did not happen, and I doubt the Pentagon had anything to do with approving the “invasion” by the Mexican Army; or, as they referred to it, “the return” of the Mexican Army.
Imagine the photo-op ifs they fed displaced, unfortunate Americans at the Alamo, home of the last stand of James Bowie and Davey Crockett.
The chicken was probably safe, as probably were the MREs, but they were illegally brought into the states in a humanitarian effort to be of assistance.
Like it is impossible to be just a little bit pregnant, it is also impossible to be just a little bit illegal, according to the FMIA.
Once again, we followed the law; but, once again, the chicken meat was not wasted.
I do not know if any similar instances occurred during the recovery from Harvey and Irma, but if they did, I do know there was no Presidential nominee for undersecretary for food safety with Senate confirmation in the Jamie Whitten Building to sort through the options.
And that is just fowl.