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001117 USDA to Shift Some Meat Testing to Plants

November 4, 2000

Washington - Meat processors that make hot dogs and other precooked products are being encouraged by the government to do their own testing for harmful bacteria rather than rely on federal inspectors to do the monitoring.

Under the policy, USDA said it will stop doing routine microbiological tests in plants that have adequate sampling programs of their own. USDA officials said they want to target their testing on processors, usually smaller plants, that don't have adequate monitoring programs.

The change will result in more testing being done industrywide, said Thomas Billy, administrator of USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

“By following a strategy that encourages industry to test, there will be much more product testing overall ... than FSIS could ever do on its own,” he said.

The tests, which look for pathogens such as Listeria monocytogenes and salmonella, are designed to catch contamination in plants or flaws in their sanitation systems.

“This is a step forward, because you're going to end up with substantially more tests,” said Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute.

Processors have a powerful incentive to do the testing themselves: When federal inspectors conduct the tests, all the meat in the lots being sampled is typically kept out of distribution until the results come back, in case there is a positive test result, industry officials said.

If the companies are doing the routine testing themselves, there would be no need to hold the product for test results, but plants would still be expected to issue a recall for products in which harmful bacteria are found, USDA officials said.

The new testing policy will result in safer food, said Lloyd Hontz, director of food inspection issues for the National Food Processors Association, a trade group.

“Consumers are better protected with a policy like this which encourages the industry to do its own testing,” he said. “They can really look for spots or points or places in their production operations that might be harboring pathogens and find them and get rid of them.”

Plants that already do some pathogen testing may be required to do it more frequently if they want to be exempt from routine USDA monitoring, Hontz said.

Processors that start their own testing program will have just as many USDA inspectors on site as they do now, but they will have more time for other jobs, such as checking plant records to verify that sanitation procedures are being followed, agency officials said.

The new policy is part of a general strategy by the Clinton administration to require the meat industry to take more responsibility for improving plant sanitation and testing for pathogens. While some critics say that USDA has gone too far, consumer advocacy groups have generally supported the agency.

Ready-to-eat meat products are a major source of listeria-related illnesses.

Listeria is estimated to kill 500 Americans a year and sicken 2,000 more. It causes flu-like symptoms in most healthy people, but it can be serious in the young, old or weak. In pregnant women, the bacterium can cause miscarriage or stillbirth even if the mother feels no symptoms.


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