The nation’s meat processors will be required to hold off shipping beef, pork and poultry until testing indicates the product is free of E. coli and other illness-causing pathogens, according to a USDA proposal.
A “test and hold” mandate would reduce the amount of unsafe food that reaches supermarket shelves, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in an April 5 statement announcing the proposed rule. While most processors already follow the test-and-hold practice voluntarily, making it law will provide an “additional safeguard,” he said.
“Meat and poultry products will be prevented from reaching consumers until our inspectors have the opportunity to thoroughly evaluate test results,” Vilsack said in the statement. “This approach will help us enhance protection of the food supply, reduce recalls, and ensure that all consumers are getting the safest food possible.”
The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service tests billions of pounds of beef, pork, poultry and eggs at processing plants every year. Under the current system, the USDA requests, but doesn’t require, that sampled products are held back from shipment until test results are determined.
According to the USDA, 44 of the most serious recalls between 2007 and 2009 could have been prevented if the test-and-hold procedure had been in place.
Most U.S. meat processors have been using a test-and-hold system for several years, so enacting the proposed rule would have limited impact, industry representatives say. Tyson Foods, Inc., the largest U.S. meat processor, has had a test-and-hold procedure for about 10 years, company spokesman Gary Mickelson said.
“It’s an added precautionary measure we take to protect our customers and consumers,” Mickelson said in an e-mail. “While we don’t typically favor more government regulation, we believe it makes sense in this case to mandate test-and-hold for the whole industry.”
E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria and other pathogens have become a source of growing concern for the industry after tainted foods sickened hundreds in the U.S. recent years. In 2009, President Obama formed a working group with an aim to strengthen the country’s food safety system.
The USDA’s proposal to make the test-and-hold law practice follows a request in 2008 by the American Meat Institute, which represents most U.S. processors. Once the proposal is published in the Federal Register, the government will accept public comment on the rule for 90 days.