The nation’s meat processors will be required to hold off shipping beef, pork and poultry until testing indicates the product is free of E. coli and other illness-causing pathogens, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture proposal.

A “test and hold” mandate would reduce the amount of unsafe food that reaches supermarket shelves, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in an April 5 statement announcing the proposed rule. While most processors already follow the test-and-hold practice voluntarily, making it law will provide an “additional safeguard,” he said.

“Meat and poultry products will be prevented from reaching consumers until our inspectors have the opportunity to thoroughly evaluate test results,” Vilsack said in the statement. “This approach will help us enhance protection of the food supply, reduce recalls, and ensure that all consumers are getting the safest food possible.”

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service tests billions of pounds of beef, pork, poultry and eggs at processing plants every year. Under the current system, the USDA requests, but doesn’t require, that sampled products are held back from shipment until test results are determined.

According to the USDA, 44 of the most serious recalls between 2007 and 2009 could have been prevented if the test-and-hold procedure had been in place.  

Most U.S. meat processors have been using a test-and-hold system for several years, so enacting the proposed rule would have limited impact, industry representatives say. Tyson Foods, Inc., the largest U.S. meat processor, has had a test-and-hold procedure for about 10 years, company spokesman Gary Mickelson said.

“It’s an added precautionary measure we take to protect our customers and consumers,” Mickelson said in an e-mail. “While we don’t typically favor more government regulation, we believe it makes sense in this case to mandate test-and-hold for the whole industry.”

E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria and other pathogens have become a source of growing concern for the industry after tainted foods sickened hundreds in the U.S. recent years. In 2009, President Obama formed a working group with an aim to strengthen the country’s food safety system.

The USDA’s proposal to make the test-and-hold law practice follows a request in 2008 by the American Meat Institute, which represents most U.S. processors. Once the proposal is published in the Federal Register, the government will accept public comment on the rule for 90 days.

“We are pleased that USDA has indicated that it will make mandatory our voluntary test and control procedures,” American Meat Institute president J. Patrick Boyle said in an April 5 statement. “We believe that this policy will prevent needless recalls, further ensure food safety and maintain consumer confidence.”

Many smaller processors, including Oregon-based Carlton Farms, have also had test-and-hold systems for several years. While the practice increases costs, doing otherwise is not really an option, said John Duyn, Carlton Farms’ chief executive.

“It’s just a cost of doing business,” Duyn said in a phone interview. His company processes about 50 head of cattle and 1,500 head of hogs a week. “You do not want a recall. You don’t turn that product loose into commerce” if it may contain pathogens.

Under a test-and-hold system, inspectors take swabs and whole-product samples from beef and pork carcasses and the samples are sent to an accredited lab for testing. Processors hold the product until results – which are typically received in about 24 hours – show the meat tested negative for pathogens. Any product that tests positive is destroyed.

Samples very seldom produce positive tests, and when they do, processors take corrective actions, Duyn said.

“Food safety is everyone’s first priority,” Duyn said. “Attention to detail and good manufacturing practices eliminate most foodborne pathogens. No one wants positive tests and we have had very few.”