Meat and poulty producers will soon be required to keep products being tested for pathogens off the market until all samples have been cleared. This practice could prove extremely challenging for small processors who sell fresh meat the same day they receive it, according to industry representatives.

The USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) announced in April that it would withhold its mark of inspection from a lot of product until samples from that batch had tested negative for adulterants.

As the comment period for this proposed rule drew to a close Monday, the North American Meat Processors Association (NAMP) expressed concern that small and very small companies may not be able to meet these requirements without support and training from FSIS.

While the “test and hold” process is already employed by 100 percent of large processors, as many as 17 percent  of companies in the “small” category and around 20 percent of “very small” producers do not currently hold meat pending testing.

Holding products allows companies to avoid having to issue a recall if a contaminant is found. Recalls can be expensive for producers. FSIS estimates that the average Class I recall (issued when pathogens are found on a product) costs companies and health officials a total of $3- to $5 million.

“Recalls can erode consumer confidence in the meat and poultry supply and can devastate a business,” NAMP acknowledges in its letter to FSIS. The test and hold method also has the obvious benefit of keeping consumers safe from eating potentially contaminated food.

FSIS estimates that this change in policy would save approximately $10,884 in costs from illnesses caused by E. coli O157:H7, Listeria and Salmonella and $2.1 million in averted deaths.

Small manufacturers don’t disregard those issues, but some lack the cooler or freezer capacity to keep entire lots of meat fresh while waiting to get samples back from the lab, NAMP points out. These types of companies often sell their product the same day it arrives at the processing facility, catering to buyers who want fresh meat and poultry.

That’s why NAMP recommends that smaller companies be given advance notice of an inspection so that they can prepare a separate lot they know won’t need to be sold that day.

“If they don’t have prior notice and the inspector comes and say ‘OK, we’re gonna take a sample right now,’ what they produced 2 hours before that came from the same raw material (but) is already out the door,” said Ann Wells, director of Scientific and Regulatory Affairs for NAMP, in an interview with Food Safety News.

Would that mean that meat set aside for inspectors had a different standard from the rest of the plant’s meat?

Not at all, says Wells. “We’re not saying that they should be able to change their suppliers or change their purchase specifications or do something differently,” she says.

Another problem the new policy poses for small producers is that testing often takes anywhere from 2 to 5 days. In that amount of time, fresh meat may have gone bad, or a company may not be able to fill an order from a customer.

“As you can imagine, this makes it hard for processors to plan their production schedules,” says Wells.

NAMP is asking that samples from small manufacturers be given special priority at the lab so that these companies can release tested product in a timely manner.

Finally, FSIS must work with small processors to help them understand the importance of test and hold, and assist them in developing strategies to make holding feasible, says NAMP.

“They need to make sure with these small processors that they understand the process at the plant and what holding all that product means,” says Wells.

“The point of our comments is that whether it’s part of the guidelines or whether it’s part of the training that the inspectors get, that there’s some sort of recognition in the agency that this particular process is a little bit more unique than most of the other processes,” she says.