The Chart

USDA sets new policy to curb foodborne illness

It's called "Test and Hold." Under a new policy the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed Tuesday, meat and poultry  would held off  store shelves until test results come back clearing them of any harmful pathogens like salmonella and E. coli. You see currently, the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) can request that producers withhold products from the market until test results are in, but they are not required to do so. Test and Hold makes it mandatory.

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

Vilsack says most establishments do their own testing, and some release their products prior to getting the test results. He expects the new standard will help protect the food supply, significantly reduce the number of recalls and illness and ensure Americans get the safest food possible. In fact, Vilsack says if this new policy had been in effect earlier, between 2007 and 2009, 44 Class 1 recalls–the most serious kind–could have been avoided.

Billions of meat, poultry and processed egg products are inspected by FSIS each year. Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, USDA undersecretary for Food Safety, oversees the agency's policies and programs. "We believe this will result in fewer products with dangerous pathogens reaching store shelves and dinner tables," Hagen said. "In addition, by testing and holding at U.S. points-of-entry, FSIS will also strengthen safety efforts focused on imported food – offering an additional safeguard to American consumers."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year one in six Americans (48 milion people) get sick from foodborne illness, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.

In 2008, the American Meat Institute asked FSIS to put these safeguards in place, and says its members already voluntarily practice test and hold. "We are pleased that USDA has indicated that it will make mandatory our voluntary test and control procedures,” said AMI President J. Patrick Boyle. “We believe that this policy will prevent needless recalls, further ensure food safety, and maintain consumer confidence.”

Public comment on the policy can be submitted  on the Federal Register for the next 90 days.   The USDA will respond to the comments, and make any necessary changes to the policy before it goes into effect.