USDA proposes 'test and hold' rule for meat

Apr 5, 2011 (CIDRAP News) – The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) today unveiled a proposal to require meat processors to hold onto product lots undergoing routine pathogen testing until the test results come in, a rule that the agency says could have prevented dozens of meat recalls in a recent 3-year period.

Most meat processors, especially larger ones, already keep tested product lots off the market until they get negative test results, and the American Meat Institute (AMI) asked the USDA to establish a "test and hold" rule in 2008. But some processors continue to release meat before test results come in, which "endangers public health," according to the USDA proposal.

In its 61-page proposal, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) said 44 meat and poultry product recalls were prompted by FSIS tests that revealed Escherichia coli O157:H7 or Listeria monocytogenes from 2007 through 2009. On the basis of those findings, the agency estimates that the test-and-hold rule would save up to $46 million per year.

"While many establishments have similar policies already in place, this proposed requirement will allow government to provide an additional safeguard to ensure food safety," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a USDA press release.

Elizabeth Hagen, USDA under secretary for food safety, commented that by testing and holding meat at US ports of entry, the FSIS will also strengthen safety efforts focused on imported food.

The FSIS called for comments on its proposal, which is due to be published soon in the Federal Register but was released by the FSIS today. After a 90-day comment period, the agency will study the comments and make any appropriate changes before announcing when the plan will take effect.

The proposal notes that the FSIS has asked but not required processors to hold onto relevant product lots while samples are being tested. "Because establishments, including official import inspection establishments, are not maintaining control of product, despite FSIS's request that they do so, adulterated product is entering commerce," the document says.

The test-and-hold rule would cover raw beef tested for E coli O157:H7 and ready-to-eat meat and poultry products tested for E coli, Listeria, and Salmonella. It would not cover raw meat or poultry products tested for Salmonella or other pathogens that are not classified as adulterants in those products.

The policy also would cover livestock carcasses that are tested for certain veterinary-drug residues, including antibiotic residues. But it would not apply to poultry tested for such residues, because they have not been a problem and the rule would be costly for processors, the agency said.

Rule considered for years
The FSIS has been considering a test-and-hold rule at least since 2002, but it refrained from the step out of concern for the impact on small companies, according to the FSIS proposal. An assessment in 2006 showed that processors were holding 80% to 100% of product lots pending test results, and the larger companies were holding nearly all such lots.

However, the recall data for 2007 through 2009 showed that early release of lots undergoing testing continued to be a problem, the document says. And in 2008 the AMI, a major trade organization, formally asked the USDA to impose a test-and-hold requirement.

The institute welcomed the USDA proposal in a statement today. "We are pleased that USDA has indicated it will make mandatory our voluntary test and control procedures," said AMI President J. Patrick Boyle. "We believe that this policy will prevent needless recalls, further ensure food safety and ensure consumer confidence."

However, another industry organization, the National Meat Association (NMA), anticipating the proposed rule, voiced concern about its potential effects, according to the FSIS document. The NMA worried about possible interruptions of business and loss of customers, especially for small firms.

While recognizing those concerns, the FSIS said it believes the rule will not cause significant loss of production, because FSIS inspectors notify facilities of their testing plans in advance so they can plan for them, the proposal says.

Chris Waldrop, a spokesman for the Washington-based Consumer Federation of America, praised the USDA proposal as a good step, but cautioned that it's not a cure-all for contaminated meat.

"Test and hold is a good thing," he said. "Companies shouldn't be shipping products into the market until they've got a confirmatory test that is negative [for pathogens]." But the rule will not negate the need for processors to make sure they are preventing contamination through all their production steps, he added.

Waldrop also commented that the rule is likely to reduce the number of meat recalls, but that won't necessarily mean the meat supply is substantially safer than before. "A reduced number of recalls may be an artifact of that policy, rather than meaning that the meat supply is totally safe," he said. He noted that the FSIS tests only a limited share of product lots.

Recall tallies for E coli, Listeria
The FSIS document says agency testing led to 22 recalls for potential E coli O157:H7 and an equal number of recalls for possible Listeria contamination from 2007 through 2009. No Salmonella-related recalls were triggered by FSIS testing during that period.

No illnesses were linked to the products included in E coli recalls, but there were two Listeria infections, one of them fatal, tied to products recalled because of Listeria testing, according to the FSIS.

On the basis of those findings, the FSIS estimates that the test-and-hold rule could yield overall savings of between $17.1 million and $46.1 million annually. Most of the savings—$15 million to $44 million—would result from preventing recalls, with reduced deaths and illnesses accounting for the rest.

See also:

Apr 5 USDA press release

FSIS notice of test-and-hold proposal

Apr 5 AMI statement

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