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USDA to speed up tracking of E. coli-tainted meat

05/02/2012 @ 3:35pm

The U.S. Department of Agriculture unveiled plans Wednesday to act quicker to prevent outbreaks of E. coli illness by tracking contaminated ground beef to its source as soon as a preliminary test detects the bacteria.

The USDA now waits for confirmation tests before it takes any action, but the new rule would allow officials to begin chasing tainted meat almost immediately.

The new plan, to be implemented in July, would allow USDA officials to begin trying to stop contaminated beef from getting to the market 24 to 48 hours earlier than they can now, said USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Elisabeth Hagen.

As soon as there is an indication that ground beef is contaminated with E. coli in what the agency calls a "presumptive positive test," USDA said it will "link products, companies, and the pathogen to a sole-source supplier and to any other processors that received the contaminated product from the supplier, instead of waiting for confirmation."

Hagen said USDA will go back to the source of the beef and request the company recall the product, but compliance will be voluntary.

About 265,000 people get E. coli infections every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Most cases don't require hospitalization, but some infections can be severe and even life-threatening, according to the USDA. Symptoms include bloody diarrhea, dehydration and, in rare instances, kidney failure.

Consumer groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest lauded the USDA proposal, but said the same should be done for other types of bacterial contaminations.

"Rapid traceback is essential for reducing the impact of E. coli outbreaks, and protects both consumers and the meat industry," the group said. "When it comes to testing for E. coli, it makes sense to start traceback procedures upon a presumptively positive test result, and not lose valuable time waiting for a confirmation."

USDA inspectors collects between 13,000 and 15,000 samples of ground beef every year and less than 1% of those tests turn out to be positive for E. coli, according to Dan Engeljohn, an assistant administrator at USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

-By Bill Tomson, Dow Jones Newswires; 202-646-0088; bill.tomson@dowjones.com

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