Sources of tainted beef will be identified faster under a U.S. plan to improve the tracking of meat sent from suppliers and processors that may sicken consumers.
Investigators will search for where the spoiled meat came from after their own tests find E. coli in beef rather than waiting days for multiple confirmation tests, the Agriculture Department said today in a statement. The investigation to find the origin of the contaminated product, such as a slaughterhouse or processor, will happen 24 to 48 hours faster, the USDA said.
“These measures will provide us with more tools to protect our food supply, resulting in stronger public health protections for consumers,” Elisabeth Hagen, the USDA’s undersecretary for food safety, said in the statement.
Consumer groups for the past decade have pressed for faster discovery of the meats’ source of E. coli, one of the most-severe cases of foodborne illness. About 48 million people get sick and 3,000 die of foodborne illness a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
“It sounds like it’s a step in the right direction,” Christopher Waldrop, director of the food policy institute at the Consumer Federation of America, a Washington-based advocacy group, said in an interview. “They can find out if contaminated product has gone to any other users, grinders.”
The plan would go into effect in July following a 60-day public comment period. The USDA said it takes 13,000 to 15,000 samples from beef a year, and less than 1 percent, or about 60, initially show a positive result for E. coli.
Establishments will have to prepare and maintain procedures for recalling meat and poultry and notify the agency within 24 hours if a product that could harm consumers has been shipped, a rule that was required under the 2008 Farm Bill. They’ll also have to document each re-evaluation of the systems they use to control pathogens in production.
“Requiring companies to report instances when they have released unsafe product to USDA right away will give the agency much better information with which to protect consumers,” Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington non-profit health advocacy group, said in a statement.
More aggressive and faster steps to trace contaminated meat to its source should benefit consumers, Bill Marler, a Seattle-based food safety lawyer, said in an interview.
“From a food safety perspective, that’s pretty significant,” Marler said. “They’re actually going to go back and look to see what happens with suppliers.”
Identifying the source of bad meat means they can find out at slaughterhouses what conditions may have allowed E. coli to get into product, perhaps because the operation wasn’t in compliance on those days or that the presence of a pathogen had been detected when the meat was on site, Marler said.
With E. coli, most people recover within seven days, according to the CDC. In 1993, four children died and hundreds of consumers were sickened from E. coli-tainted beef linked to Jack in the Box restaurants.
Infections caused by the strain of E. coli now tested for by the USDA dropped 44 percent in 2010 from 2009, according to a 2011 CDC report.
The agency is also planning to roll out a final rule this year banning six other strains of E. coli from raw ground beef and tenderized steaks, an initiative denounced by the beef industry as being too costly and of little benefit. The USDA has said it will help prevent illness.