New USDA policy aims to reduce food-borne illnesses

Under a new federal policy aimed at reducing illnesses caused by food, processors of meat and poultry must wait until laboratory tests show their products are free from contamination before they can ship them to be sold, Agriculture Department officials announced Tuesday.

“This is one more tool that we can use to protect consumers from food-borne illnesses, such as salmonella, E.coli and others,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters in a conference call.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in six Americans gets sick from food-borne illness every year, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die.

“Those numbers are unacceptable,” Vilsack said. “We are committed to reducing those numbers so families should never have to worry about the food they place on their dinner tables.”

USDA inspectors currently test beef, poultry, lamb, veal and egg products for pathogens at 6,000 plants. But the companies are under no obligation to wait for test results before shipping the food to wholesalers and retailers.

Since 2007, there have been 44 instances in which meat or egg products had to be recalled because laboratory test results showed they were contaminated with a pathogen likely to cause serious illness or death.

Those recalls and related illnesses could have been prevented had a “test and hold” policy been in place, Vilsack said. It generally takes 24 to 48 hours to get the results from laboratory tests, said Elisabeth Hagen, undersecretary for food safety.

Most of the meat industry follows a “test and hold” procedure voluntarily. Mark Dopp of the American Meat Institute, a trade group, said that less than 10 percent of meat processors ship products before tests are finished. In some cases, they do not have room to store the products, he said. In other instances, they are worried about shelf life or satisfying demands from customers, Dopp said.

The meat industry has been lobbying the USDA since 2008 to make “test and hold” mandatory, because recalls are expensive and damage the public image of the meat companies, said Janet Riley of the American Meat Institute. “If you have a recall that could have been avoided and didn’t result in any illnesses, which most don’t, it impacts the perception among consumers of meat safety. And we want to prevent that.”

In the waning days of the George W. Bush administration, the meat industry petitioned the USDA to make “test and hold” mandatory. And after President Obama was elected, the American Meat Institute wrote to Vilsack and asked him to get personally involved and require the policy.

Asked Tuesday why it took the USDA years to mandate a policy that had already been adopted by most of the industry, Hagen said: “We should be focused on really why are we doing this today as opposed to why it wasn’t done before. Because we think it’s the right thing to do. This is good, common-sense policy that everyone can agree on.”

Still, Hagen suggested that “test and hold” will not catch all contamination because not every piece of meat is tested. She said it was unlikely that the policy could have prevented an ongoing outbreak of salmonella illness associated with turkey burgers. Last week, Jennie-O recalled 55,000 pounds of frozen raw turkey burgers sold nationwide through Sam’s Club stores that may be contaminated with Salmonella hadar, a strain that is resistant to many commonly prescribed antibiotics. As of April 1, 12 people have been sickened in connection with the turkey burgers, the CDC said.

The USDA said it will accept public comments on the policy over the next 90 days before implementing it, but no date was specified.

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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