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Test and Hold: ‘This is Not a Sea Change’

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s announcement Tuesday that it is moving toward mandating a test-and-hold policy for the meat and poultry industry drew some praise, but the overall consensus seems to be that while the change is a positive step — USDA says it would have prevented 44 Class 1 recalls in the last three years alone — a mandatory policy is likely not all that significant.

As Food Safety News reported yesterday, the practice of waiting for microbiological or residue test results before shipping product into commerce has already been widely adopted in the industry. The American Meat Institute enthusiastically supports the change, though USDA officials have not indicated what percentage of processors are not practicing test-and-hold.

“[The new policy] is not earth-shattering,” says Sarah Klein, a food safety attorney at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Close to 100 percent of the large establishments, and probably 80 percent of smaller processors, are already doing this.”

Nonetheless, Klein says CSPI is pleased with the agency’s decision to use its regulatory power so processors have to “earn” the USDA mark of inspection.

“We’re not interested in a gotcha system,” she added. “We’re not interested in having more recalls. So to the extent that this prevents recalls, that is in the public’s interest.”

Former Under Secretary for Food Safety, Dr. Richard Raymond, said his team looked at making test-and-hold mandatory under the Bush administration, but ultimately decided not to pursue the policy for two reasons: most processors are already holding product and the public health benefit is not clear.

“This is an extremely small percentage we are talking about here,” said Raymond. “It is an onerous issue for these very small plants,” he added, explaining that smaller grinders, for example, might not have the fridge capacity to hold product for a couple days until FSIS gets back to them on their tests, and their local customers might rely on them for short-notice orders. Raymond called the policy proposal a “political play” to reduce the number of embarrassing recalls, which ultimately remind consumers that meat can make you sick.

John Munsell, a former meatpacker based in Montana (see a profile on Munsell here), reiterated that the proposed change is aimed at recalls. Munsell called on the agency to go beyond test and hold to a more progressive system where contamination is traced back to its original source.

“The agency’s primary motive here is to reduce the number of recalls. Period,” he wrote in an email to Food Safety News. “Why? Because recalls are an embarrassment to the agency, as well as to the industry.  If these 44 recalls had not occurred, the agency would be empowered to state that their proactive meat inspection system has successfully resulted in a dramatic reduction in the amount of contaminated meat produced.”
 
Munsell, a fierce critic of FSIS testing policies since his infamous 2002 run in with E. coli (which was ultimately linked to a 19.1 million pound ConAgra recall), said he believes the primary reason for the policy shift is “for PR image purposes.”

“Mandatory [test and hold] hold does reduce the number of embarrassing recalls, but with the agency’s historical unwillingness to trace back to the [source], and force the source to clean up its act, we are virtually guaranteed ongoing outbreaks,” he added. FSIS is not required to look upstream in the supply chain to see where contaminated meat might have originated, a practice that could lead to widened recalls.

Munsell also pointed out that many of the large-scale meatpackers have their own in-house labs, which allows quick turnaround time for test results. “Small plants must FedEx the meat to outside labs, and it took us 2 days’ minimum to obtain a confirmed negative, or 3 days for a confirmed positive. The USDA positives on samples from my plant all required four days.”

Carol Tucker-Foreman, a distinguished fellow in food policy at Consumer Federation of America, called USDA’s decision a “useful step” but echoed Munsell’s call for improving traceback. 

“[I]t would be much more meaningful if this step were accompanied by an FSIS/USDA commitment to track all STEC positives back to the slaughterhouse, not just those that resulted in illnesses and recalls,” she said in an email. “Tracing the contaminated product back to its source — whenever a positive is found – -would improve accountability at the slaughterhouse and the farm.”

Klein also pointed out that the new test-and-hold policy will only be as strong as the validity of the testing method.

“The separate question then becomes, is their testing system sufficient for catching contamination?” Klein added that discussions and improved data collection are necessary to move USDA’s testing protocols forward.

USDA Inspector General Phyllis Fong last month questioned the validity of FSIS’ current E. coli O157:H7 sampling program, recommending that the agency place its testing process on “sounder statistical ground” by redesigning its sampling methodology to account for different levels of contamination. 

© Food Safety News
  • Doc Mudd

    Raymond and Munsell argue that releasing tainted product onto consumers’ plates, then recalling it days or weeks later is a smart food safety approach. To do otherwise, they inform us, would be a “political play”.
    I think we can correctly identify the “political play” in this bass-ackward push to con us into believing up is down, dark is light and ground beef is urgently ordered up on “short notice” much like emergency room medications.
    Such frantic sophistry around this non-issue should perk the ears of a good investigative reporter. Something smells and it may not be the ground beef; there just may be bodies buried in the backyard on this one. What other rational explanation, simple greed?

  • John Helferich

    What will be the effect if this is extended to FDA regulated products? Will producers of foods that have shelf lives less than the testing period eventually have to change their product lineup so the products can be held for positive release?

  • Minkpuppy

    Doc–whether you agree or not, mandatory test and hold is a political play. As Dr. Raymond has stated, it only affects a small percentage of plants as most of them already do it voluntarily (and I can vouch for that). It does nothing to really advance food safety.
    Why do I say mandatory test and hold does nothing to advance food safety? Because it only affects FSIS sampled product. IT DOESN’T APPLY TO THE PRODUCT BEING VOLUNTARILY TESTED BY THE ESTABLISHMENT ITSELF.
    The processors may take multiple samples on any given day, send it to the private lab and ship multiple batches of product before they ever get their results back.
    So basically, the plant could be holding 5,000 lbs of ground beef until the USDA results come back but still be shipping the other 20,000 lbs that are part of different production lots. That 20,000 lbs that were shipped could be crawling with 0157. Nice thought isn’t it? But they held the product affected by the USDA sample! That just makes us all safer doesn’t it?
    You explain to me how that is advantageous and safer for the consumer, cuz I just don’t see it. A mandatory policy that’s only mandatory for a small percentage of product isn’t much of a policy at all, IMO. It’s just window dressing to make everything look all hunky-dory.
    I think mandatory test-and-hold should be conducted on a discretionary basis to be decided by Frontline Supervisors and the District Office. There are a few processors (hardly all small processors) out there that will ignore their test results and ship the product anyway and we should be given the tools to deal with them accordingly without unduely punishing someone else who has a good track record, regardless of whether they ship before results or back or not. Also, I think if the plant has a history of positive test results, then the inspectors should have the discretion to hold product under USDA retention until they get the all clear.
    In other words, the inspection force needs flexibility on this matter to deal with each unique set of circumstances accordingly.
    These plants might all be small but they each have a different set of problems to deal with and they each have their own customized food safety plan in place (or at least they should have one). You just simply can’t apply the same decision making process to plant A as you do plant B if plant B has different interventions/procedures in place. That’s what you’re asking USDA to do. It’s just not that cut and dried.
    And on a much more serious note, this is what came out of the AG Secretary’s mouth today:
    “USDA MEAT INSPECTIONS: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters Wednesday that he has not decided yet if he will exempt U.S. Department of Agriculture meat inspectors from a government shutdown. “We’re going to notify all of our workers at the same time what their status is,” Mr. Vilsack said. He told reporters he is required to “make the determination … of whether people’s jobs are central to the safety of people or property” and only they will remain working in the event of a government shutdown. The American Meat Institute said Wednesday that the 6,200 federally inspected meat packers would stop operations if inspectors are off the job.”
    Just makes you feel a whole lot better about things doesn’t it? *note sarcasm*. Better yet, we might just have to work and not get paid for it. I have a conscience and will do my duties but what about the guys who don’t? *shudder*

  • jmunsell

    If indeed public health benefits from Test & Hold for product sampled by FSIS, we must then ask why the same Test & Hold is not even being discussed for samples collected by the meat plants themselves. If Test & Hold is indeed the highly beneficial system as discussed here, it only makes sense that Test & Hold is implemented for ALL testing, regardless of who is collecting the sample. To say Test & Hold helps food safety when the testing is done by FSIS, but that there’s no value in Test & Hold protocol when the sampling is done by non-FSIS personnel is hypocritical and disingenuous. I am NOT suggesting that Test & Hold should be mandatory for all sampling, because Test & Hold has limited value at best, and constitutes yet another FSIS “feel good” PR ploy designed to portray FSIS as the consumers’ best friend. FSIS should be more concerned with decreasing the number of outbreaks, rather than embarrassing recalls. And the only way we will decrease the number of outbreaks is to (a) identify the TRUE SOURCE of contamination, and (b) to Force the Source to implement corrective actions to prevent recurrences. FSIS disagrees. The agency’s stance is to follow the pathogens downstream, attempt to detect the pathogens at a downstream further processing grinding plant via sampling & testing, then force that grinding plant to clean up its act even though the agency is fully cognizant that the grinding plant did NOT introduce the pathogen. FSIS coyly allows the horses to be let out of the barn (the originating slaughter plants), and subsequently to dedicate agency surveillance downstream to detect and round up the horses after they’ve been allowed into commerce in containers bearing the USDA Mark of Inspection. It’s a crazy system, but FSIS is getting away with it.
    As long as FSIS is allowed to focus its attention downstream, while adroitly avoiding enforcement actions at the SOURCE, we will continue to experience ongoing outbreaks. We must remember that the crux of this problem is NOT the scenario of big plants versus small plants, but instead is an issue of FSIS abdicating its responsibility to adequately inspect kill floors. We must steadfastly resist and reveal FSIS’s efforts to create these diversionary tactics (such as Test & Hold) , designed to divert our attention away from the real issue, which is the agency’s intentional circumvention of meaningful surveillance of kill floor problems, which is where E.coli & Salmonella are unwittingly deposited onto carcasses.
    Having said that, I must admit that the largest packers enjoy political clout and economic wherewithal to have an impact on agency policies, clout not enjoyed by small plants. Nevertheless, the primary problem causing outbreaks is the agency’s deregulation of the industry, and the agency’s fear of litigation stemming from the big packers if FSIS were ever audacious enough to implement truly meaningful enforcement actions at THE SOURCE! If the true source is a small plant, then indeed, the plant must be forced to implement corrective actions. If the true source is a big plant, the same must hold true. But, FSIS is more concerned with its personal comfort and semi-retirement at the big plants, a gift of the HACCP Hoax.
    Frankly, we need bold FSIS leaders, who will implement enforcement actions at the SOURCE, regardless of who the source is.
    Mandatory Test & Hold is but an agency ploy to divert our attention away from the true culprit, which is the source originating slaughter plants, which by the way, have been deregulated.
    Please remember that when FSIS introduced its version of HACCP in the mid-90’s, the agency stated that HACCP would allow the plants to police themselves, that the agency would adopt a “Hands Off” non-involvement role, and jettison its previous command-and-control authority. So, if the agency attempts to utilize a hands-on authority, or police the industry, or attempt enforcement actions (command and control), associations representing the big slaughter plants forcefully remind the agency of its previous promises. Essentially, the agency is a non-player at the largest source originating slaughter plants, by intentional agency design. Admittedly, the agency has dozens of inspectors at the large plants, but as revealed in numerous OIG investigative reports, the inspection team is eviscerated of any meaningful authority.
    As long as this persists, Americans must concede that outbreaks are becoming a way of life in America. Get used to it.
    John Munsell

  • Doc Mudd

    Whew, if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with BS, eh John?
    A lot of hot air for something claimed to be so unimportant. Mighty, mighty suspicious.
    It was bound to happen…
    http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3b06654/

  • John Munsell

    If indeed public health benefits from Test & Hold for product sampled by FSIS, we must then ask why the same Test & Hold is not even being discussed for samples collected by the meat plants themselves. If Test & Hold is indeed the highly beneficial system as discussed here, it only makes sense that Test & Hold is implemented for ALL testing, regardless of who is collecting the sample. To say Test & Hold helps food safety when the testing is done by FSIS, but that there’s no value in Test & Hold protocol when the sampling is done by non-FSIS personnel is hypocritical and disingenuous. I am NOT suggesting that Test & Hold should be mandatory for all sampling, because Test & Hold has limited value at best, and constitutes yet another FSIS “feel good” PR ploy designed to portray FSIS as the consumers’ best friend. FSIS should be more concerned with decreasing the number of outbreaks, rather than embarrassing recalls. And the only way we will decrease the number of outbreaks is to (a) identify the TRUE SOURCE of contamination, and (b) to Force the Source to implement corrective actions to prevent recurrences. FSIS disagrees. The agency’s stance is to follow the pathogens downstream, attempt to detect the pathogens at a downstream further processing grinding plant via sampling & testing, then force that grinding plant to clean up its act even though the agency is fully cognizant that the grinding plant did NOT introduce the pathogen. FSIS coyly allows the horses to be let out of the barn (the originating slaughter plants), and subsequently to dedicate agency surveillance downstream to detect and round up the horses after they’ve been allowed into commerce in containers bearing the USDA Mark of Inspection. It’s a crazy system, but FSIS is getting away with it.
    As long as FSIS is allowed to focus its attention downstream, while adroitly avoiding enforcement actions at the SOURCE, we will continue to experience ongoing outbreaks. We must remember that the crux of this problem is NOT the scenario of big plants versus small plants, but instead is an issue of FSIS abdicating its responsibility to adequately inspect kill floors. We must steadfastly resist and reveal FSIS’s efforts to create these diversionary tactics (such as Test & Hold) , designed to divert our attention away from the real issue, which is the agency’s intentional circumvention of meaningful surveillance of kill floor problems, which is where E.coli & Salmonella are unwittingly deposited onto carcasses.
    Having said that, I must admit that the largest packers enjoy political clout and economic wherewithal to have an impact on agency policies, clout not enjoyed by small plants. Nevertheless, the primary problem causing outbreaks is the agency’s deregulation of the industry, and the agency’s fear of litigation stemming from the big packers if FSIS were ever audacious enough to implement truly meaningful enforcement actions at THE SOURCE! If the true source is a small plant, then indeed, the plant must be forced to implement corrective actions. If the true source is a big plant, the same must hold true. But, FSIS is more concerned with its personal comfort and semi-retirement at the big plants, a gift of the HACCP Hoax.
    Frankly, we need bold FSIS leaders, who will implement enforcement actions at the SOURCE, regardless of who the source is.
    Mandatory Test & Hold is but an agency ploy to divert our attention away from the true culprit, which is the source originating slaughter plants, which by the way, have been deregulated.
    Please remember that when FSIS introduced its version of HACCP in the mid-90’s, the agency stated that HACCP would allow the plants to police themselves, that the agency would adopt a “Hands Off” non-involvement role, and jettison its previous command-and-control authority. So, if the agency attempts to utilize a hands-on authority, or police the industry, or attempt enforcement actions (command and control), associations representing the big slaughter plants forcefully remind the agency of its previous promises. Essentially, the agency is a non-player at the largest source originating slaughter plants, by intentional agency design. Admittedly, the agency has dozens of inspectors at the large plants, but as revealed in numerous OIG investigative reports, the inspection team is eviscerated of any meaningful authority.
    As long as this persists, Americans must concede that outbreaks are becoming a way of life in America. Get used to it.
    John Munsell