The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has proposed a new plan to improve safeguards in meat distribution.  The USDA currently has the option to require meat shipments to be held pending testing results; the new test and hold policy would require meat to be held from 24 to 48 hours until it is shown to be free of dangerous bacteria.

The goal of the revised policy is to improve food safety and reduce consumer illness and death as a result of contaminated food.  Most meat processors conduct their own tests prior to shipping meat, but some rely on the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) for testing.

Given the inconsistent nature of the policy, the USDA has proposed the revised policy to ensure the American consumer is getting the safest meat possible.

Tom Vilsack, U.S. Agriculture Secretary, stated “while many establishments have similar policies already in place, this proposed requirement will allow government to provide an additional safeguard to ensure food safety.  Meat and poultry products will be prevented from reaching consumers until our inspectors have the opportunity to thoroughly evaluate test results.”

The USDA believes that 44 serious food recalls would have been prevented from 2007-09 if the test and hold policy would have been operational.  The net impact on the American population could be significant.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 48 million people become ill each year because of food-borne illnesses, with 128,000 people hospitalized and 3,000 fatalities.

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

Not only is the meat processing industry in full support of the new policy, they helped drive the initiative.  The American Meat Institute submitted the proposal to the USDA three years ago, and the North American Meat Processors Association states that as long as “representative samples can be taken without disrupting the company’s ability to fill their daily orders,” they are in support of the new policy.

There will be a 90 day public comment period, followed by a response from the USDA, before a final policy can be implemented.