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New 'test and hold' rule aims to make meat safer

8:36 AM, Dec 11, 2012   |    comments
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JoNel Aleccia, NBC News
Starting next year, U.S. meat producers will have to abide by a new "test and hold" rule aimed at curbing outbreaks of foodborne illness caused by dangerous bacteria in certain types of beef, poultry and other meat, officials said Friday.

The regulation, first proposed in April 2011, will require manufacturers of raw ground beef, tenderized beef and other "non-intact" beef and those who make all ready-to-eat products containing meat not only to test for disease-causing pathogens, but also to wait for the results before shipping. It takes effect in 60 days, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials said.

That's a change in the USDA's current policy. Now, when the agency's Food Safety and Inspection Service staff collects samples for testing, companies are asked but not required to hold the meat until the results are known.

That has allowed bacteria -- including certain strains of E. coli, listeria and salmonella -- to contaminate meat, leading to outbreaks of foodborne illness, USDA officials said.

If the new requirement had been in place between 2007 and 2010, it could have prevented 49 of the 251 meat, poultry and processed egg product recalls that occurred during that time, officials said.

Many meat producers already have test-and-hold policies in place, and some industry trade groups, including the American Meat Institute, have supported making it a requirement.

"Consistent with our requests in 2008 and 2009, AMI has long advocated the practice of controlling tested product and not using it before test results are received," AMI President and chief executive Patrick Boyle said in a statement. "Preventing potentially adulterated meat and poultry products from reaching consumers provides additional public health protection."

Smaller meat producers, including those who specialize in fresh ground beef, worried that the new regulations would force them to hold product too long for test results, sacrificing quality and safety, according to comments posted in response to the proposal.

But FSIS officials said they anticipate that negative test results will be determined within two days.

NBC News

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