The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Monday released details on their new “hold and test” policy, which will soon require meat producers to hold shipments of ground beef, tenderized steaks and ready-to-eat products being tested by the agency until the results come back negative for Shiga-toxin producing E. coli.
“This new policy will reduce foodborne illnesses and the number of recalls by preventing contaminated products from reaching consumers,” said USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen in a statement announcing the policy on Friday. “Many producers hold products until test results come back. We’re encouraging others in the industry to make this a routine part of operations.”
Food safety advocates and the meat industry support the move, which applies to E. coli O157:H7 as well as the other six STEC recently declared adulterants by the agency.
“AMI has long advocated the practice of controlling tested product and not using it before test results are received,” said American Meat Institute president J. Patrick Boyle. “Preventing potentially adulterated meat and poultry products from reaching consumers provides additional public health protection.”
Caroline Smith DeWaal, the director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said that the policy “seems like common sense,” and noted that “fewer recalls would be a welcome outcome for consumers.”
Food safety consultant David Theno, who is well known for turning Jack in the Box’s quality program around after the catastrophic 1993 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak, also applauded the announcement.
“It is a good move. It’s ironic in a sad way that they needed to do this anyway,” Theno told Food Safety News. “Anyone that has a sample taken should hold it until it either clears or does not. But sometimes you need to regulate common sense, sad but necessary in this case.”
According to FSIS, the new policy requires USDA-regulated plants and importers to “maintain control of products tested for adulterants by FSIS and not allow the products to enter commerce until negative test results are received,” which the agency says can happen within two days.
The policy applies to non-intact raw beef products as well as intact raw beef products that are intended for non-intact use — like mechanically tenderized steaks — that are tested by FSIS for Shiga-toxin producing E.coli and any ready-to-eat products that are tested for pathogens by FSIS.
The agency estimates that if the new requirement had been in place between 2007 and 2010, 49 of 251 meat recalls “could have been prevented.”
Food safety blogger Phyllis Entis called the new policy “a step forward for food safety,” but she argued the changes will be limited in scope since the policy only applies to product that has been tested by FSIS and the agency only tests a small fraction of the meat supply.
“Most production line and finished product testing is carried out by food establishments; some using their own in-house labs, and others by sending samples to free-standing independent testing labs,” wrote Entis on eFoodAlert Monday. “FSIS encourages, but does not mandate, ‘hold and test’ under these circumstances.”
“In spite of these limitations, FSIS calculates that its new policy will yield an economic benefit of between $12.8 million and $37.8 million annually,” she added. According to FSIS’ calculations, each year, the reduced costs of recalls is estimated to save between $12 million and $27 million, the savings from actual averted illnesses is estimated to be $650,000, with another $106,724 saved by averting illnesses caused by other pathogens. All of this is more than offset by the $923,000 to $1.4 million the meat industry is expected to incur annually by adhering to the policy.
Craig Wilson, the head of quality and food safety for Costco–which practices ‘test and hold’ for meat, poultry, produce and prepared foods–said he believes the recent actions taken by FSIS indicate the agency is moving toward a more proactive and preventive approach.
“I’m excited by the direction USDA is going,” said Wilson. “I see this as a terrific start — and that’s what it is, a start.”