The new U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service policy requiring meat and poultry plants to hold product being tested for pathogens by the inspection agency or the company itself may have some surprising support – the small meat and poultry processing industry, including the association representing that industry, the American Association of Meat Processors.

“Depending how it is written and imposed, it may not be such a bad thing,” says Dr. Jay Wenther, executive director. “AAMP has always promoted and supported holding tested product. AAMP was one of the national trade associations involved in developing the original test-and-hold document (a best-practices document  developed by all the national meat and poultry trade associations advising plants how to do test-and-hold).”

But Wenther is concerned this required FSIS policy could lead to a continual chain of future mandatory USDA requirements, posing difficulties for the meat and poultry industry.

During the recent summer meeting of the National Meat Association, FSIS Assistant Administrator Kenneth Petersen announced, during the next few months the agency would issue a Federal Register Notice about the issue. Rosemary Mucklow, NMA’s director emeritus, says the inspection agency will not put the mark of inspection on (meat or poultry) products when a sample is being taken to test for adulterants until there is a negative result. She said NMA has always supported ‘test-and-hold’ for plants, but is undecided if it would support a mandatory requirement.

“We still have ‘propose and comment’ rulemaking, and I expect that will continue,” Mucklow said.

The Federal Register notice on withholding the stamp of inspection on meat products until adulterant test samples are returned with negative results will have a 60-day comment period when it is issued.

The decision by FSIS to change its procedures and to withhold a determination as to whether meat and poultry products are not adulterated until all test results are received, was made due to a petition from the American Meat Institute to FSIS. Last October, AMI President J. Patrick Boyle urged Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to mandate ‘testand-hold.’ He noted more than 80 percent of the recalls due to the presence ofE. coliO157:H7 and all recalls due to Listeria monocytogenes last year could have been prevented if tested products had been held until cleared. USDA comments and action is a positive response to AMI‘s petition.

There’s no doubt recalls are eroding consumer confidence in meat products produced in the U.S., so legislation and regulation are created to resolve the issue.

Fewer recalls will help
Wenther says while legislation and regulation are not always the best tools to work with when the meat industry is so diverse, fewer recalls are helpful to the entire meat industry regardless of size.

FSIS is taking action because the inspection agency sees no other way to solve the problem. While it would be nice to think all establishments would hold tested product, avoidable recalls have continued, so all meat and poultry establishments are not voluntarily holding tested product. Industry efforts to avoid recalls were bolstered five years ago when eight national associations representing the industry and the International HACCP Alliance developed “Industry Best Practices for Holding Tested Products.” The document was helpful to plants, large and small, because it provided guidance beyond simply asking the industry to hold all tested product. FSIS supported the documents.

Wenther believes the mandatory FSIS requirement will cause problems for some plants that haven’t addressed the issue or don’t hold product being tested. Other establishments may have issues because they produce short shelf-life product and current micro testing takes an extended amount of time. Storage or the ability to fill orders may be issues for some plants. But he also thinks there is little reason for plants not to hold product being tested. “Just-intime orders should be limited anyway…it takes good customer relations to communicate that you don’t do business that way. The concern is over how plants will actually have to control the product. Can the mark of inspection be applied on pre-printed labels or do you have to wait to package products? Again, it all depends on how it is implemented,” he says.

Industry is expected to make many comments on the proposal once published. It hopes FSIS will review the comments completely and make adjustments if unachievable expectations are established. But concern exists over USDA’s continued movement toward requiring more activities that used to be done voluntarily. Wenther agrees, saying it is happening with food defense, as well as test-and-hold. FSIS has stated if 90 percent of federally inspected plants don’t establish a food plan, the agency will move toward rulemaking.
Bernard Shire is M&P’s Washington correspondent, a contributing editor and a feature writer based in Lancaster, Pa. Shire also works as a food safety consultant and writer for Shire & Associates LLC.