Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) introduced a bill yesterday to overhaul the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) protocol for tracing contaminated meat back to the source to protect public health and hold “the right people accountable when something goes wrong.”

Tester’s bill, the Meat Safety and Accountability Act, would require the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to “design and implement–using its existing budget–an initiative to trace tainted meat back to the original source of contamination,” otherwise known as “traceback.”

According to food safety experts, one of the most glaring flaws in the meat safety system is the lack of any meaningful traceback requirement.

When an FSIS official finds a harmful pathogen, such as Salmonella or E. coli O157:H7, in ground beef, they are not required to look up the supply chain to see where the contaminated beef may have originated. Basically, they are not required to look to the slaughterhouse to find what part of the system is failing to produce clean meat.

John Munsell, dubbed “meatpacking maverick” by Mother Jones for his whistleblowing and advocacy, has been pressing for traceback reforms since his own small beef grinding plant was suspended for E. coli contamination in 2002.

Munsell pleaded with the USDA to look up the supply chain to see where the contaminated meat was coming from so it could be recalled–he was sure it was coming from a ConAgra plant in Colorado. The agency did not further the investigation.

Months later, the ConAgra plant Munsell had suspected recalled 19 million pounds of beef after an E. coli outbreak that sickened 45 people in 23 states was tied to its product. Over 80 percent of the recalled meat had already been consumed by the public by the time USDA announced the recall. (See our interview with Mr. Munsell in November 2009 for the full story).

Munsell helped inspire Tester’s bill. He believes the provisions are a step in the right direction.

“Senator Tester’s Bill specifically addresses ‘enteric’ bacteria, which by definition means they emanate from within animals’ intestines, and by extension, these bacteria proliferate on manure-covered hides,” explains Munsell. “This definition points to sloppy dressing procedures at the originating slaughter establishments.”

“The vast majority of downstream, further processing USDA-inspected plants do not have any intestines or manure-covered hides on their premises,” he says. “Interestingly, neither do the tens of thousands of retail meat markets across America, nor restaurants, cafeterias, etc.  If we want to reduce the amount of enteric pathogens in our food chain, we must focus on the source, which FSIS adroitly avoids.”

Bill Bullard, of R-CALF United Stockgrowers of America told the Billings Gazette he thinks traceback regulations are “overdue,” though he and many others have noted that the meat industry giants will lobby against Tester’s provisions.

“Our current laws and regulations insulate the slaughtering facilities where the contamination actually occurs and holds them harmless from any disease investigation,” Bullard told the Gazette.

“This bill puts more common sense and fairness into the equation as our food travels through the supply chain to the kitchen table,” Sen. Tester said in a statement Thursday. “This bill will make our food safer to eat by ramping up accountability.”