The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is taking new steps to protect consumers from the risks associated with contaminated ground beef, implementing new procedures designed to more easily detect bacteria in the meat.
New USDA traceback procedures were announced on Wednesday, which will allow the agency’s Food Safety and Inspection Services (FSIS) division to link contaminated ground beef back to it’s original source more quickly.
The procedures will make it easier to remove contaminated beef from the food supply, and reduce the risk of widespread food poisoning outbreaks.
Under the new traceback procedures, the FSIS will conduct an immediate investigation of any businesses whose ground beef tested positive for E. Coli O157:H7 during initial testing and at suppliers who provided the source beef.
“A critical component of preventing foodborne illness is quickly identifying sources of contamination and removing unsafe products from store shelves,” said Brian Ronholm, Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety.
In the past, the FSIS would only investigate at an implicated grinding facility after a presumptive positive test was confirmed, a process which can take two days. An investigation of a grinding facility would have begun 30 days later. The new procedures will allow the FSIS to begin investigations more quickly.
Traceback procedures will also include a review of establishment records to determine if the grinding or supplying establishments experienced a breakdown which contributed to the contamination. It will also implement a procedure to determine if the establishment in question shipped the contaminated product to other grinding facilities. This will allow the FSIS to have the product removed from commerce more quickly, the agency claims.
According to the FSIS, the new program builds on other initiatives the USDA implemented over the summer. These initiatives included a new requirement for retailers to keep records of ground beef source suppliers. It also institutes new laboratory methods to test multiple pathogens at one time.
E. Coli outbreaks are the pathogen most commonly associated with contaminated ground beef. E. Coli, also known as Escherichia Coli, is a common strain of bacteria found in the intestines of people and animals.
E. coli can cause serious and potentially fatal food poisoning for some people, especially in young children and the elderly who can contract a life threatening form of kidney failure. Symptoms can include abdominal cramps, blood diarrhea and vomiting. It can be contracted from exposure to contaminated water and food, including raw vegetables, unpasteurized milk and undercooked ground beef.
In May nearly 2 million pounds of ground beef were recalled after the FSIS determined the meat was contaminated with E. Coli. At least 11 people across four states were sickened during the outbreak. Six of the victims required hospitalization. The outbreak was linked to contaminated hamburgers sold at restaurants.