Anyone buying meat or poultry that displays an inspection mark from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) can be assured the products are safe to consume. Right?
Not necessarily. But action is under way to change that.
Under a proposal recently published in the Federal Register, FSIS would be able to require companies to hold products from commerce until the agency’s test results for harmful substances are received. Currently, when FSIS collects samples for testing, the agency asks the products be held until results are known.
While most meat and poultry processors now voluntarily hold tested goods until results are known, not all do. Current practice has been to allow products to be packaged and labeled with the mark of federal inspection, pending receipt of test results. However, there is no legal requirement that the goods be withheld from the market, and FSIS can only request companies maintain control of all items represented by the samples taken. As a result, some adulterated products are entering the marketplace.
An adulterated product is one bearing or containing any poisonous or other substance that may be harmful to health. Among the items included in that definition are ready-to-eat products prepared on food-contact surfaces found to be contaminated by pathogens, as well as carcasses containing unacceptable levels of animal drug residues.
When a test result is positive for any pathogen or adulterant and the product already has been shipped to market, FSIS requests the company involved issue a recall. If the company refuses, FSIS can move to detain and, if necessary, seize it.
USDA leaders believe 44 of the most-serious product recalls between 2007 and 2009 could have been prevented if the proposed "test-and-hold" requirement had been in place.
FSIS inspects billions of pounds of meat, poultry and processed-egg products annually.
According to Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, under secretary for food safety, "There is no more fundamental function of government than keeping its people safe from harm…"
The proposed regulation represents "another proactive approach to further prevent consumers from falling victim to foodborne illness. We believe this will result in fewer products with dangerous pathogens reaching store shelves and dinner tables," she added.
The test-and-hold procedures also will apply at U.S. ports-of-entry, a step aimed at strengthening safety efforts on imported food.
In the Federal Register notice about the new requirement, FSIS invited public comment on it and set a July 11 deadline for receiving that input. The agency then will evaluate any response submitted, make any appropriate changes to the new policy and publish the final version in a later edition.
The proposed new requirement is the latest step in efforts to strengthen FSIS testing procedures. More than eight years ago, in late 2002, a public meeting was held in Washington to explore withholding the FSIS mark of inspection until test results were available. Comments there raised concerns about the effect such a policy would have on small companies.
After a subsequent FSIS request for input from the National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection failed to achieve consensus on the issue, the agency in 2005 asked for the committee’s suggestions on how best to gain industry compliance on holding product until test results were known. Due to the difficulties a policy change could present for small firms, FSIS ultimately opted not to mandate companies hold product, but instead opted to evaluate the results of a voluntary approach.
Recalls since then have led FSIS to conclude that releasing product into the marketplace remains a problem under the voluntary compliance approach.
Since early 2004, FSIS has had a policy requiring carcasses tested for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) be held by the company involved and not permitted to enter the marketplace until test results are received. That limited test-and-hold requirement was implemented in response to the first discovery of a BSE-positive cow in December 2003.
"The poultry industry is generally supportive of the proposed ‘test-and-hold’ inspection regulations," said John Starkey, president of the U.S. Poultry & Egg Federation, a trade group that represents producers and processors of broilers, turkeys, eggs and breeding stock, as well as allied companies.
"There would be minimal impact for the industry, as inspections would be applicable only to ready-to-eat (RTE) poultry products. The majority of poultry producers already implement a voluntary hold on RTE products until they are tested," he added.
The American Meat Institute, the nation’s oldest and largest meat and poultry trade association, has been on record since 2008 supporting the requirement that companies hold or control product tested by FSIS until results are known.