Back in 1994, the US Dept. of Agriculture created safe-handling instructions to be put on packages of raw meat and poultry to educate consumers about how to handle meat and poultry products. The label highlights the steps of refrigeration, separating raw meat and poultry products from other foods, cleaning and cooking the products thoroughly and keeping them at safe temperatures.

At its recent 2014 meeting in Washington, DC, USDA’s National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection (NACMPI) recommended changes to safe-handling instructions (SHI). Changes would include eliminating the first statement from the current SHI, which says: “This product was prepared from inspected and passed meat and/or poultry.” The committee would like to see wording added directing the use of thermometers for checking temperatures of meat and poultry products.

The group’s members also want safe-handling instructions to apply to all foods and all high-risk groups. And they’d like federal food-safety regulatory agencies to simplify and standardize SHI symbols with the goal of one universally recognized method for communicating safe handling of food.

Committee members agreed that communicating end-point cooking temperatures to consumers is extremely important. They think it will be very important for these temperatures to be added to safe-handling instruction labeling if available consumer testing data would support this step.

Industry should be allowed to provide additional label information for consumers by using a well-defined approval process including consumer testing and performance data. NACMPI asked if this additional information should be approved formally by FSIS, or be okayed under the new generic-labeling guidelines.

The meat and poultry industry had submitted a waiver to propose graphic changes to safe-handling instruction labels. Later, the waiver request had been withdrawn. But members of the committee think FSIS should revisit the waiver in order to evaluate possible alternative approaches augmenting SHI that would communicate risk-reduction behavior to consumers. Beyond safe-handling instructions, FSIS should pursue measures to provide information to consumers about product safety, the committee believes, by working with other groups to further educate consumers.

There also needs to be efforts to establish a greater “consumer culture” of food safety – that is, help consumers to think more about food safety when preparing food and meals. There needs to be more sharing of food-safety expertise and messages, the committee thinks. The committee would also like to see an informational website on labels established for consumers who want more detailed information. “We strongly urge the implementation and timing of any safe-handling instruction changes be concurrent with new educational means to enhance consumer food-safety practices,” the committee said.

It’s always been the goal of the USDA to keep the safe-handling instructions for meat and poultry products as simple and easy to understand as possible, but there has been a feeling that changes in the SHI are warranted. And that’s why the agency asked its national advisory committee to take a look at the instructions and recommend improvements to be made.

Bernard Shire, who is based in Lancaster, Pa., is M&P’s Washington correspondent. He also works as a food-safety consultant.