The US Dept. of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service’s decision to publish a regulation requiring meat processors to “test-and-hold” before putting their products on the market was not surprising.

It has been discussed for years. But industry was working toward the goal of being able to take care of the issue without another policy or rule—yet failed.

For a long time, the American Meat Institute has encouraged member and non-member firms to control tested product and not put it into public commerce before negative pathogen test results come back.

This latest USDA policy requires meat producers and processors to hold and keep control of their shipments of ground beef, tenderized steaks and ready-to-eat (RTE) products being tested by FSIS until negative results come back from the testing for Shiga-toxin producing E. coli pathogens. The “test-and-hold” policy would apply to E. coli O157:H7, as well as the six other E. coli STECs declared adulterants by the FSIS.

Policy requirement

Many processors already take this precaution, said USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen. Industry and consumer food-safety groups support this action.

All meat industry trade associations supported FSIS taking this step, including the American Association of Meat Processors (AAMP), whose members are mostly small and very small processors. Although some small processors were accused of not always holding products until test results came back from USDA, AAMP urged all members to take that step.

Some smaller processors complained their shipping requirements wouldn’t allow them to withhold products that long. Other processors, not all of them small, exited the fresh ground-beef business altogether.

Still, some industry officials were disappointed FSIS had to take this step. Food-safety consultant Dr. David Theno, who revamped Jack in the Box’s food-safety program after the 1993 E. coli O157:H7 disaster that resulted in the adoption of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point programs in the meat and poultry industry, supported the move. Although disappointed it had to be done this way, he said sometimes it’s necessary to regulate common sense.

Reducing recalls, illnesses

The goal of the new policy is to reduce the number of recalls in the meat industry plus the amount of foodborne illness taking place in the US. But even this step does not promise to completely solve food-safety problems because the policy only applies to products that are undergoing FSIS-conducted tests.

Most meat and poultry products are tested by companies within their own labs or out at independent laboratories.

Boosting public confidence

Still, this move is supported by the industry and it’s one additional step toward increasing food safety and improving industry’s standing in the eyes of the public.

Bernard Shire is a contributing editor based in Lancaster, Pa. Shire also works as a food safety consultant and writer for Shire & Associates LLC.