Policy-ish

Feds Want Meat To Pass Contamination Tests Before Shipping

Workers move packages of meat at the South Gate Meat Company last June, when the Southern California meat distributor recalled 35,000 pounds of ground beef due to possible bacterial contamination. i i

Workers move packages of meat at the South Gate Meat Company last June, when the Southern California meat distributor recalled 35,000 pounds of ground beef due to possible bacterial contamination. Adam Lau/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Adam Lau/AP
Workers move packages of meat at the South Gate Meat Company last June, when the Southern California meat distributor recalled 35,000 pounds of ground beef due to possible bacterial contamination.

Workers move packages of meat at the South Gate Meat Company last June, when the Southern California meat distributor recalled 35,000 pounds of ground beef due to possible bacterial contamination.

Adam Lau/AP

Would it surprise you to learn that meat can be shipped out to stores before processors know whether it's contaminated with bacteria?

Well, that has been the case. And it's a problem. Foodborne illnesses make 48 million people sick every year, according to the government.

Processors have been allowed to test meat and poultry for salmonella, E. coli and other nasty germs, then move the stuff out the door before the results came back.

Now, though, the U.S. Department of Agriculture wants processors and packers to hold on their products until the lab results come back OK. The proposed change in food regulations is aimed at keeping unsafe food off the market in the first place.

Undersecretary for Food Safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen says the test results usually take about 48 hours. "This is a win for everybody," she tells Shots. The testing requirement will lower the risks for consumers by keeping contaminated food out of circulation. And, she says, it's a win for companies, which can avoid costly and embarrassing recalls.

As a matter of fact, the American Meat Institute, a trade group, is all for the stricter testing requirements. "We are pleased that USDA has indicated that it will make mandatory our voluntary test and control procedures," AMI President J. Patrick Boyle told the Wall Street Journal. The change, he said, "will prevent needless recalls, further ensure food safety, and maintain consumer confidence."

How big a difference could the new rule make? Hagen says the stricter approach could have prevented 44 foodborne illness outbreaks since 2007. Those outbreaks sickened hundreds and are blamed for at least one death.

So when does the new rule kick in? A USDA spokesman told us in an email:

The agency is working to issue it later this summer. After the 90-day comment period, the agency will need to evaluate the comments received before going forward with the final version.

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