Meat Industry INSIGHTS Newsletter

990635 USDA Extends Deadline For Meat Safety Measures

June 23, 1999

Washington - U.S. meat processing plants will get extra time beyond this week's deadline to figure out better ways to prevent contamination by the deadly listeria bacteria, the U.S. Agriculture Department said.

The USDA last month set a June 25 deadline for 1,100 meat processing plants to improve food safety checkpoints after an outbreak of listeria monocytogenes in hot dogs killed 21 people.

Listeria monocytogenes is harmless to most healthy people, but can be deadly for the elderly, the unborn, chemotherapy patients and anyone with a weak immune system. About 1,300 cases are reported annually in the United States, and nearly one-fourth of those patients die.

Meat processors had complained this week's deadline would be impossible to meet because of the need for scientific sampling and data analysis to prove that any changes in procedures were improvements over the old methods.

A spokeswoman for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service said that while this week's deadline was not officially extended, companies would get more time simply because the agency had not yet completed all of its preparations.

“We are talking with our meat inspectors union to work out how they will verify the plants have conducted their reassessments,” the spokeswoman said.

Federal inspectors are required by law to check all meat and poultry products for contamination, and to make sure plants follow through on their programs for ensuring food safety.

The USDA said it wants plants to adopt tougher measures to control listeria, such as routine testing of packaged meats.

The food industry has acknowledged that more must be done to prevent listeria contamination, but contends that testing is not an effective way to control foodborne disease.

Because listeria is commonly found in air, water and dust, companies should instead focus on environmental controls such as thorough cleaning of equipment and assembly lines, according to industry officials.

“This has sent some companies into an uproar,” said Rhona Applebaum, vice president of the National Food Processors Association.

“We heard there may be a 30-day extension of time but that's not been confirmed,” she added. “We are encouraging our companies to do due diligence on assessing their Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points plans.”

Manufacturers of frozen sandwiches, frozen meat pies and other processed foods containing bits of uncooked meat or poultry are also concerned that stricter USDA rules to fight listeria may needlessly affect the quality and taste of their products, Applebaum said.

Many frozen foods do not include a so-called “kill step” with high temperatures during processing because consumers must microwave them to steaming hot temperatures anyway, she said.

The food processors group plans to fund its own risk assessment of various foods to determine which have the greatest risk of listeria monocytogenes, she said. The Food and Drug Administration, which has authority over non-meat foods, said recently it would launch an analysis of listeria risks.

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