The US Department of Agriculture, in an effort to curb recalls and reduce consumer illness due to contaminated meat, recently announced a "test and hold" policy which would force meat processors to hold beef, pork and poultry for pathogen testing before sending to grocery stores.

In a statement released April 5, the USDA said that 44 of the most serious food recalls between 2007 and 2009 could have been avoided had this new policy been in place.

"We believe this will result in fewer products with dangerous pathogens reaching store shelves and dinner tables," said Elisabeth Hagen, USDA undersecretary for food safety in a release.

Currently, producers are allowed to introduce meat into the marketplace after testing but before results have been verified. If test results show the meat is contaminated, it's then recalled though in many cases it may already be in consumers' hands.  

The Wall Street Journal reports tests can take between 24-48 hours to conduct, which some producers may not believe to be worth the wait.  

"A larger producer may be more interested to ship right away, they don't want to hold inventory because inventory is money," said Mack Graves, CEO of Petaluma, Calif.-based Panorama Meats, which sells organic beef from Wyoming’s Arapaho Indian ranch to Whole Foods stores in the Rocky Mountain region."The idea is to get it out of their hands and into the customers as soon as possible."

The industry responds

The North American Meat Processors Association issued a statement in support of the USDA's proposal. “We believe that this policy will prevent needless recalls, further ensure food safety, and maintain consumer confidence,” the release read.

The NAMP statement suggested that many large processors already employ a test-and-hold procedure and that the USDA's policy would most impact small producers.

Organic producers, who often work on smaller farms, said they support test and hold but did not believe it would affect business.

"Test and hold is a really basic best practice that we've been doing for years," said Pamela Saunders, quality and industry relations manager for Organic Prairie, the meat division of the La Farge,Wis.-based Organic Valley, a farmer-owned cooperative of several hundred smaller organic producers. "I can't generalize for the rest of the industry, but I will say the traceability requirements for organic really minimizes our risk."

Graves echoed the sentiment.  "We believe in test and hold," he said. "People can complain about it but the more assurances that you can give a consumer, why wouldn't you want to do that?"

Similarly, natural retailers said they support the USDA's move, but don't believe the additional requirement will change how they do business.  

"If you're selling good, quality meat from reputable sources, you shouldn't have to worry about recalls or disease," said Eli Lesser-Goldsmith owner and general manager of Healthy Living Market in South Burlington, Vt. "I know where my product comes from, that's why my customers buy from me. These food scares don't come from small producers with grass-fed cows. They come from CAFO feed lots and corn-fed cattle."  

After a 90 day comment period, the USDA will make any appropriate changes and announce the effective date of the new policy.