Government to speed efforts to track E. coli in beef

The government plans to speed up the process for tracking E. coli in meat, a move that will help authorities more quickly find the source of bacteria outbreaks and hasten recalls of tainted food, officials said Wednesday.
By SAM HANANEL Published: May 3, 2012
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The government plans to speed up the process for tracking E. coli in meat, a move that will help authorities more quickly find the source of bacteria outbreaks and hasten recalls of tainted food.

The new Agriculture Department program announced Wednesday would begin tracing the source of potentially contaminated ground beef as soon as there is an initial positive test.

Current procedures require USDA officials to wait until additional testing confirms E. coli before starting their investigation. Under the new process, government officials could trace the source of E. coli 24 to 48 hours sooner.

“The further ahead that we can get, the more we can be focusing on preventing contaminated product from reaching consumers in the first place,” said Elisabeth Hagen, the department's undersecretary for food safety.

Once a batch of meat tests “presumptively positive” for E. coli, the USDA can immediately begin efforts to link products, companies and the pathogen to the source supplier and any other processors that received the contaminated meat.

Thousands of people are sickened each year by E. coli, bacteria that can cause diarrhea, dehydration and, in the most severe cases, kidney failure.

About 13,000 to 15,000 samples of ground beef and beef trimmings are tested for E. coli every year. The earlier tracking procedure will begin when the USDA finds the common O157: H7 strain of the E. coli pathogen, which causes the most severe illnesses.

Roughly 65 to 75 samples of ground beef test presumptively positive each year, and 95 percent of those are later confirmed positive with additional testing, according to USDA data.