CHICAGO–The U.S. Department of Agriculture is poised to move forward on a number of hot-button food safety issues in the next year, according to a top USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service official.

Non-O157 strains of E. coli, test-and-hold, the labeling of mechanically tenderized meat, and food safety plan validation are all on the agency’s list of policies to tackle in the coming months, said Daniel Englejohn, assistant administrator for FSIS’ Office of Policy and Program Development, before a meat industry conference this week.

Englejohn piggybacked on comments made recently by the USDA’s new Under Secretary for Food Safety, Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, on the agency’s position on the regulation of six disease-causing strains of E. coli beyond E. coli O157:H7.  “As a government agency need to evolve our programs,” said Englejohn, who added that FSIS is “actively” looking at the issue.

At a food policy conference in DC last week, in her first speech as under secretary, Dr. Hagen hinted that the agency would be reevaluating its policy on non-O157s.  “At USDA we have a zero tolerance policy for the most well-known STEC, O157,” she said.  “But it’s 2010–we know that others can cause equally severe disease.”

“Our world changes every day, and the system we had 100 years ago wasn’t meant to address emerging pathogens,” she added.

Englejohn also told the industry conference, which was hosted by the North American Meat Processors Association, that the processors should expect the agency to move toward requiring better record-keeping for grinders on the retail level, improving the efficacy of meat sample collection and testing, and resolving the delayed “test and hold” petition for ground beef.

He also said petitions from consumer groups asking that the agency require labeling for non-intact, or mechanically tenderized, product would be addressed in the coming months.

Consumer groups have lobbied for labeling of non-intact meat products so that consumers know they must cook the product differently. For example, a non-intact steak could harbor pathogens internally in a way that an intact steak would not.  Englejohn said the agency would likely initiate the rule-making process on the labeling issue in 2011.

Most, if not all, of the issues Englejohn discussed would be worked out through the formal federal rule-making process, allowing industry and academia as well as consumers to provide input on the policies.

One of the most contentious issues discussed during the meeting, which focused on E. coli reduction, was focused on clarifying the agency’s draft guidance on Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) validation.  Released last March, the document, which appeared to pile on onerous testing requirements, sparked a firestorm among small and medium sized processors.

Englejohn reiterated that FSIS released the draft guidance to address “a widespread lack of understanding” of HACCP validation and that the document does not create any new regulatory requirements, but conceded that the it should be clarified and reworked. The agency has a lot of material to work with–it received over 2,000 comments on the document. Englejohn said it’s unusual for the agency to get more than 50 comments on a proposed guidance, noting that the comments expressed a certain “rage” from the industry and are helping to guide the agency rework the document.

“FSIS, to its great credit, has been very open and engaged in the process,” said Bob Hibbert, an attorney at K&L Gates who specializes in navigating USDA regulation.  “I think it’s fair to say that we’ll end up with something that’s more useful because of the dialogue.” Hibbert said he believes FSIS’ openness indicates how the agency will go about making policies in the future.

“Bad processes, in my experience, lead to bad results. Good processes lead to good results,” he added.

“We believe [HACCP validation] is critically important for the agency to address, but it’s important that we get it right,”  Englejohn.  The agency expects to re-issue a draft of the guidance document this fall.