USDA Proposes New Meat Testing Rules

The Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy (CIDRAP), just announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has disclosed proposed meat testing rules to prevent<""> food poisoning outbreaks.

The proposal mandates meat processors maintain product lots undergoing routine pathogen testing until the test results are received, said CIDRAP, which noted that the USDA pointed out that this rule could have prevented dozens of meat recalls in the past three years.

CIDRAP pointed out that, for the most part—and especially in larger establishments—meat processors do keep tested product lots from going to market until negative tests results on that product are received. Also, in 2008, the American Meat Institute (AMI) requested that the agency establish a “test and hold” rule. According to the agency’s proposal, said CIDRAP, some processors do release meat prior to receiving clean test results, which “endangers public health,” said the USDA.

The proposal also states that the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) said 44 meat and poultry product recalls were initiated from 2007 to 2009 following FSIS tests that revealed Escherichia coli O157:H7 or Listeria monocytogenes, wrote CIDRAP. Based on these data, the USDA said its new rule would save about $46 million annually. “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, also said that testing and holding meat at U.S. ports of entry will enable the agency to increase its safety measures on food imports, according to CIDRAP.

According to the proposal, FSIS requested, but did not require processors to maintain relevant product lots when testing is ongoing. “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, quoted CIDRAP.

The test-and-hold rule is meant for raw beef tested for E coli O157:H7 as well as ready-to-eat meat and poultry tested for E coli, Listeria, and Salmonella; the rule does not apply to raw meat or poultry tested for Salmonella or other pathogens not classified as adulterants in those products, explained CIDRAP. The rule does cover carcasses tested for specific veterinary-grade drug residues, including antibiotics, but does not apply to poultry, said CIDRAP. Apparently, according to the agency, poultry has not posed an issue and would be cost prohibitive to processors.

As a matter-of-fact, this rule, which has been under consideration since 2002, was held over concern for small companies, said CIDRAP, citing the proposal. A 2006 review found that processors hold 80-100 percent of product lots being tested and larger companies were holding even more, wrote CIDRAP.

According to the proposal, testing led to 22 recalls for possible E. coli O157:H7 and 22 for potential Listeria contamination from 2007 through 2009; there were two reported Listeria infections, one fatal, said the FSIS. The FSIS said that based on its findings, the test-and-hold rule could lead to $17.1 million and $46.1 million in annual savings with most—$15 million to $44 million—from prevention and the remainder from reduced deaths and illnesses, CIDRAP concluded.

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