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Test and Hold: A New Meat Safety Paradigm

A recent Bill Marler blog said “Mary Clare Jalonick of AP reports on the Vilsack/Hagen briefing that the Obama administration is aiming to prevent meat recalls by withholding meat and poultry products from grocery store shelves until government testing is complete.”

The Agriculture Department proposed rules Tuesday that would force companies to delay shipments to consumers until government inspectors have released tests on the meat. The department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has inspectors in all meat plants that sample for E. coli and other contaminants.

Currently, products that are sampled can be shipped before testing results are known, though many companies already have procedures in place to hold the meat. The agency said at least 44 recalls between 2007 and 2009 could have been prevented if the rule had been in place.

So I had to take a deep breath.  As an old friend often said about complicated issues, “I feel strongly both ways about that.”

To ship meat that’s been sampled and tested before the results are in always seemed to be a fool’s errand to me.  Yeah, 99 times out of a hundred, it’s a wise financial decision.  The odds are overwhelmingly in favor of loading up the truck and sending it on its way.  The money saved by not sitting on tens of thousands of pounds of inventory for a few days can put a nice smile on a CFO’s face in a low margin business.

On the other hand, one slip can be fatal and the USDA counted 44 slips in just two years.  The financial hit a meat processor will have to take while managing a recall can make that erstwhile smiling CFO look for a ledge on the top floor of a very tall building.  Even if the business has the immediate reserves to survive a massive, cash-sucking, soul-searching recall, the blow to the corporate reputation can lead to certain death.  Customers lost because of a recall seldom return.

I remember an advance man for one of those flying military shows — Blue Angels, I think — telling me how safe their aerial acrobatics were and why they chose to fly in certain areas.  It was more than 20 years ago, so forgive me if I have to paraphrase.

“Those boys are highly trained,” he said.  “They spend thousands of hours perfecting their skills and the odds of an accident are a hundred thousand to one — easily.”

“Still, they ‘ain’t’ perfect and they can screw up.  That’s why we like to do these maneuvers over lightly populated areas.  If they augur in while training over the Mojave Desert, we’ve got a mess to clean up and a few snakes and lizards on the ground meet their maker.”

“If they smack down while executing a stunt over downtown San Francisco on the Fourth of July, not only have we lost some excellent pilots but maybe thousands of citizens on the ground.  Why take that risk, no matter how small?”

That’s exactly the risk a meat processor takes when he ships before he sees the results.  The skinny, minuscule, almost non-existent chance that the worst case can happen almost certainly will lead to a major disaster.

Lisa Keefe, writing in Meatingplace, an industry news resource, pointed out that the USDA was acting on a petition that was first submitted to the USDA by the American Meat Institute three years ago and it would give the Food Safety and Inspection Service the authority to hold the products until FSIS test results are received.

Stealing a Martha Stewart quote, let me say “It’s a good thing” that AMI and the meat industry have taken a leadership position on this issue.  Too often, the industry is seen as dragging its feet on food safety proposals that might take a few dollars off the bottom line.  In this case, I have to wonder why the USDA sat on the AMI proposal for three years.

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

Phil Kimball, executive director of the North American Meat Processors Association, said in a statement provided to Meatingplace, “NAMP supports the proposed change in the FSIS ‘test and hold’ policy, and has encouraged our members for many years now to follow ‘test and hold’ practices to better protect consumers and their businesses.”

  

Kimball added a word of caution, though, saying “As we analyze the policy put forth by FSIS, we want to ensure that FSIS works with processors, particularly small and very small processors of fresh products, to ensure that representative samples can be taken without disrupting the company’s ability to fill their daily orders.”

The bottom line: To make this proposal work in the real world, tests are needed that are quicker and more accurate.  They’re coming; the lab rats of the world are working feverishly on something that’s as near immediate as possible.  What we also need is a well-funded USDA that can put highly trained and skilled personnel on the floor to test and return the results at near the speed of commerce, regardless of the method of choice.

© Food Safety News
  • Doc Mudd

    Excellent article, Mr. Jolley. I agree that shipping tested meat ahead of receiving test results is, indeed, “a fool’s errand” as you say.
    Of course, there are some very, very determined fools in the industry, apparently:
    “Kimball added a word of caution, though, saying ‘As we analyze the policy put forth by FSIS, we want to ensure that FSIS works with processors, particularly small and very small processors of fresh products, to ensure that representative samples can be taken without disrupting the company’s ability to fill their daily orders.'”
    Seems convenience and grubby profits of “small and very small” producers must always trump food safety and consumer welfare. The fool’s errand as sacred populist dogma.

  • Bear

    Just because one sample in a lot tests negative doesn’t mean that another sample in the same lot can’t turn up positive. The only way to be a 100% sure is to do 100% destructive sampling – there has got to be a better way than test and hold.