WASHINGTON – On April 5, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced during a teleconference the US Department of Agriculture is proposing a new mandatory test-and-hold policy for the US meat and poultry industry. Under the proposed legislation, processors would be required to hold meat and poultry products until they see a negative in food safety test results before releasing products into commerce.

When asked by MEATPOULTRY.com if USDA had an effective date in mind for this proposed policy, Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen answered, “We don’t have a specific effective date [in mind]. We are having a 90-day comment period on the proposed policy and those comments will be analyzed.”

“Our hope is by making this announcement today...that those [meat and poultry] companies currently not following this [test-and-hold] procedure will get into the habit of doing so,” Vilsack added. “A large part of the industry is already following this process, so that’s good news. We are heartened that the meat and poultry industry stands with us on this policy change as we all work together to enhance the safety of our food supply.”

Once enacted, the policy will reduce the amount of unsafe food that reaches store shelves, Vilsack said. Under the proposed requirement, USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) would hold products from commerce until FSIS test results for harmful substances are received. FSIS believes this requirement will substantially reduce serious recalls for meat and poultry products.

"Meat and poultry products will be prevented from reaching consumers until our inspectors have the opportunity to thoroughly evaluate test results,” Vilsack said. “This approach will help us enhance protection of the food supply, reduce recalls and ensure all consumers are getting the safest food possible."

Each year, FSIS inspects billions of lbs. of meat, poultry and processed egg products. The agency believes 44 of the most serious Class 1 recalls between 2007 and 2009 could have been prevented if this mandatory test-and-hold policy had been in place.

In addition, mandatory test-and-hold will have implications at US points of entry. By testing and holding at US points of entry, USDA will strengthen safety efforts focused on imported food as well.

When Vilsack asked Hagen to take her current job, his charge to her was to bring down rates of foodborne illness. “Everything we’re about here is prevention,” she said during today’s press briefing. “Prevention in the production environment and prevention in the food handling environment. This [proposed test-and-hold policy] is one more tool we have to protect Americans from harm by making sure the test results are negative before these products enter commerce.”

Test-and-hold is one more example of USDA efforts to work with the industry and consumer groups to fulfill its mission to protect public health, Vilsack said. “President Obama's Food Safety Working Group [FSWG] is working to modernize our food-safety system by building collaborative partnerships with consumers, the industry and our regulatory partners,” he added. “Through a transparent process, we are building a food-safety system that will meet the challenges posed by a global food supply in the 21st Century.”

The FSWG has already developed three core principles to help guide food safety in the US: prioritizing prevention, strengthening surveillance and enforcement and improving response and recovery. And on March 16, USDA also announced implementation of revised and new performance standards aimed at reducing the prevalence of Salmonella and Campylobacter in young chickens and turkeys. USDA expects the new standards – which require establishments slaughtering chicken and turkey to make continued reductions in the occurrence of pathogens – to prevent as many as 25,000 foodborne illnesses.

Vilsack said he had indications from very large processors, such as Tyson Foods and Cargill, they support this move. “For Cargill, test-and-hold is a verification of our food-safety interventions and processes,” said Angie Siemens, vice president of technical services, Cargill Meat Solutions, Wichita, Kan., in a statement sent to MEATPOULTRY.com. “By doing so, we are able to confirm that our processes and systems are working the way they were designed, in support of our efforts to provide customers and consumers with the safest food possible, every serving, every time.”

American Meat Institute officials issued a statement supporting the move, and pointed out that AMI originally submitted a petition in 2008 seeking a mandatory test-and-control policy. When FSIS samples a product for pathogen testing, AMI recommended that FSIS require that the plant maintain control of the tested product and prevent it from entering commerce until test results are received. This request reflected the voluntary practices of AMI’s members.

“We are pleased that USDA has indicated that it will make mandatory our voluntary test-and-control procedures,” said J. Patrick Boyle, AMI president. “We believe that this policy will prevent needless recalls, further ensure food safety and maintain consumer confidence.”

When asked what percentage of major processors don’t have a test-and-hold policy, Vilsack replied, “There are a lot of smaller producers we may not be able to categorize so I’m not sure I’m comfortable putting a percentage on it. But we know there are a number of entities that were essentially not waiting long enough for the test results to come back negative before they put product in the stream of commerce. The result was an increase in recalls and risk. Our best estimate is this is going to help prevent 25,000 illnesses, so that suggests there’s some significant work to be done in this area, which is why we’re making it mandatory.”

When asked what help the agency has given small meat and poultry companies to adopt test-and-hold, Hagen replied: “We understand at USDA that small business drives America. And we understand that small and very small establishments are a significant part of the meat and poultry industry. We have a number of ways to support them, particularly when new policies and regulations are put into place."

In closing, Vilsack said, “I want to iterate this is an ongoing process by this administration. The president was quite clear early in the administration that food safety was something he was interested in and he wanted both the USDA, as well as Health and Human Services, to work collaboratively and cooperatively  to provide for a safe food supply.”