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. The very young, the elderly and those with weak immune systems are the most susceptible to illness which can in rare cases be fatal.
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.
Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center For Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, called the announcement a "very positive step."
"This will allow them to hopefully reduce the burden of illness that can be linked to these outbreaks," she said.
DeWaal's group has called on USDA to go even further and offer similar protections against salmonella strains that are resistant to antibiotics.
The USDA will take comments on the new E. coli plan for 60 days. It is expected to go into effect in July, in time for the peak of summer grilling season.
While testing is now limited to the single E. coli strain, the USDA will begin expanding testing in the future for six other strains of the bacteria that are causing increasing numbers of infections.
Safety experts advise consumers to safely prepare raw meat products, including fresh and frozen, and only consume ground beef that has been cooked to a temperature of 160 degrees.
The USDA also announced new regulations Wednesday that require meat and poultry companies to prepare recall procedures and notify USDA within 24 hours that a potentially contaminated meat or poultry product has been shipped. In addition, the agency will offer new guidance to meat and poultry plants on how to make sure their food safety systems are effective in preventing foodborne illness.