Photo: Charlie Neibergall / AP Photo
Hoping to significantly reduce the number of the most serious food-related recalls, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed new regulations this week aimed at the nation's meat processors.
As often happens in these sorts of situations, it's not until new regulations are proposed that the rest of us (a.k.a. the happy-go-lucky meat-buying public) start to understand just how unprotected we'd been up until now, kind of like that cartoon character that sleepwalks onto a tightrope, only to wake up and see the Grand Canyon yawning beneath him.
Currently, meat processors large and small are required to test their products for nasty bugs like E. coli, Listeria and Salmonella, but seemingly contrary to common sense, they can go ahead and send their tested meat to market without waiting for the test results.
The USDA asks them (politely, we're sure) not to do that, but they're not required to wait. True, as the American Meat Institute, an industry trade group, points out, most large meat processors and many smaller ones do wait until test results come back negative before shipping, say, their sirloin out to unsuspecting weekend barbecuers. But others don't.
The new policy would require meat processors to keep their meat from distribution until after test results confirm the absence of foodborne pathogens.
The USDA estimates that the early release of meat led to 44 Class 1 recalls between 2007 and 2009 alone, the most serious type of recall, according to CNN, and all these could have been avoided if this new "test and hold" policy had been in place. The proposed policy would specifically cover raw beef tested for E. coli and ready-to-eat meat and poultry products tested for E coli, Listeria and Salmonella.
As Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement: "Meat and poultry products will be prevented from reaching consumers until our inspectors have the opportunity to thoroughly evaluate test results."
To which most of the rest of us respond: "Really!? About time."