- As soon as this week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will release new safety guidelines for meat companies, an official told Reuters. The voluntary guidelines come after an increase in recalls of meat and poultry products.
- Carmen Rottenberg, administrator of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, told the news service that USDA will tell food companies they need to start internal investigations as soon as consumers complain, and alert the government within 24 hours if they find contamination. The new guidelines will offer advice on investigating and processing complaints.
- The guidelines have reportedly been in process for months, Rottenberg said, and they are intended to make sure companies meet regulatory guidelines that already exist.
It’s not surprising that USDA is taking further action to show it is working to combat the rise in meat and poultry recalls. According to federal records, millions of pounds of meat and poultry were recalled in 2018.
The USDA said in a monthly meeting agenda that consumer complaints have typically come before recalls were announced, according to Reuters. With this new plan, the USDA wants to make the communication and testing process faster so that recalls can be announced before problems become more widespread.
"Taking very prompt action is what's really critical to the agency," Rottenberg told Reuters.
Although the new guidelines will be voluntary, these meat companies will likely try to comply given the hurdles they have recently faced with contamination and reports of products containing foreign materials. JBS Tolleson recalled 12 million pounds of raw beef due to salmonella contamination at the end of last year.
Even more recently, Perdue Farms, Tyson Foods and Pilgrim's Pride recalled more than 100,000 pounds of chicken nuggets combined just last month. Tyson and Pilgrim's Pride nuggets were contaminated with rubber, while Perdue used incorrect labeling on its nuggets. And just this weekend, Washington Beef recalled about 30,000 pounds of ground beef products that may be contaminated with materials like hard plastic and metal.
Given this uptick in recalls, big meat and poultry companies were likely already evaluating their food safety procedures so new guidelines could be appealing to manufacturers.
But will these new guidelines be effective? The advice seems to target limiting the impact of the recall instead of stopping it from occurring altogether. Meat companies can be hesitant to recall products until they fully investigate whether consumer concern is legitimate to avoid creating unnecessary panic. Waiting to fully look into the issue means it could take a lot longer to recall the products and alert USDA.
Back in 2008, USDA revealed a massive recall of 143 million pounds of beef products from a California processor. As a result, Congress used the 2008 Farm Bill to implement new requirements for companies to promptly alert the USDA about potentially contaminated or mislabeled meat and poultry. These new guidelines seem to reinforce that plan.
The U.S. government has been rolling out new food safety plans across the board recently. The Food Safety Modernization Act has revolutionized the way manufacturers regulated by the Food and Drug Administration run their facilities, though no counterpart law exists for USDA. The new regulations in FSMA have not yet all been implemented, with the Produce Safety Rule, the Intentional Adulteration Rule, and some aspects of the Foreign Supplier Verification Rules set to roll out in the next couple of years. FDA recently released a plan to reduce safety risks from food imported from other countries. And after an increase in romaine lettuce recalls, the FDA is also implementing routine FSMA inspections this spring of the biggest produce farms.
With both the USDA and the FDA releasing and acting on new plans, it seems the government wants companies and consumers to know that it is prioritizing updates to its food safety processes. Whether or not these latest guidelines are effective, it will be good for companies to say that they will comply, since it could help rebuild trust with consumers that is often lost after major recalls.