The U.S. Department of Agriculture Tuesday moved toward mandating test-and-hold in the meat and poultry industry, a policy change aimed at reducing the amount of unsafe food that reaches grocery stores.

The proposed requirement would allow USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to hold meat and poultry products, keeping them out of commerce, until FSIS test results for “harmful substances” — like pathogens or drug residues — are received. The current policy does not require companies to hold onto product while test results are pending. According to USDA, 44 Class I food recalls between 2007 and 2009 could have been prevented if companies had waited for test results.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Under Secretary for Food Safety Elisabeth Hagen told reporters that while test-and-hold is already practiced by many of the big meat and poultry processors, the new policy could yield significant public health results.

The American Meat Institute, which petitioned FSIS to make test-and-hold mandatory in 2008, praised the decision. “We believe that this policy will prevent needless recalls, further ensure food safety, and maintain consumer confidence,” AMI President J. Patrick Boyle said in a statement.

“Meat and poultry products will be prevented from reaching consumers until our inspectors have the opportunity to thoroughly evaluate test results. This approach will help us enhance protection of the food supply, reduce recalls, and ensure that all consumers are getting the safest food possible,” said Vilsack, adding that the move toward a new policy was part of a wider administration effort to focus on food safety reforms.

“This is just really another tool we have to prevent public health,” said Hagen during a call with reporters. “This is a win for everybody and we’re excited to move forward.”

“We’ve made a big effort to do outreach and support specifically to small and very small establishments … We understand that small and very small establishments are a significant part of the meat and poultry industry,” said Hagen, when asked how USDA will assist small and medium-sized establishments in making the switch. “It’s important to keep our focus on what’s the priority here, what’s the value here that we’re trying to move down the road? That’s safe food for all, no matter what size operation is producing that food.”

The policy change will have the biggest impact on small- and

medium-sized processors who may not be holding product and waiting for

FSIS results before shipping. According to Richard Raymond, who lead FSIS under the Bush

administration, his team did not pursue making the policy mandatory in part

because it is already widely in practice.

“This is an extremely small percentage of plants,” Raymond told Food Safety News. “Ninety-percent of the meat we eat — the big five — they’re doing this already. They’re doing their own testing in addition to FSIS testing.”

“It is an onerous issue for these very small plants,” he added, calling the policy proposal a “political play” to reduce the number of embarrassing recalls. 

The proposed policy requirement will be available here.

FSIS is seeking comments on the proposal over a 90-day period. Comments can be submitted here, or by mail to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, FSIS Docket Clerk, Room 2-2127, George Washington Carver Center, 5601 Sunnyside Ave., Mailstop 5272, Beltsville, MD 20705.