US Government Takes New Steps To Protect Americans From E. Coli
May 3, 2012

US Government Takes New Steps To Protect Americans From E. Coli

Just in time for barbecue season, the US government has announced plans to expedite the process for finding the dangerous E. Coli virus in ground beef. They hope these new measures will allow them to quickly find the source of future outbreaks and issue meat recalls much faster than their current methods.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced their new plans on Wednesday, saying they will be able to start tracing any tainted meat as soon as tests come up positive.

Currently, the USDA has to wait for secondary tests to be conducted to confirm the presence of E. Coli before they can start investigations. Their new methods bypass these secondary tests, allowing food inspectors to start tracing the outbreaks immediately, often a full 24 to 48 hours sooner.

Elisabeth Hagen, the new Agriculture Department´s under secretary for food safety told the Associated Press (AP) these new methods will strengthen the agency´s ability to detect the bacteria, thus providing safer food for Americans.

“The additional safeguards we are announcing today will improve our ability to prevent food-borne illness by strengthening our food safety infrastructure,” she said.

Under the new procedure, when E. Coli is detected in meat, the USDA will immediately take action, linking companies and products to their manufacturers. Once these connections are made, the USDA can begin to notify any other processors in the production chain of the infection.

E. Coli affects thousands of Americans each year. The most common symptoms of E. Coli are diarrhea and dehydration. In the most severe cases, these infections can cause kidney failure. These effects are magnified in those with weaker immune systems, particularly the elderly and very young children. In some rare cases, an E. Coli infection can even lead to death.

To combat these outbreaks, the USDA tests up to 13,000 samples of ground beef and beef trimmings every year to find any traces of the bacteria. In accordance with earlier practices, the USDA wouldn´t start tracking the pathogen until they found the most common and most severe strains of E. Coli.

These new proposed measures will be a welcome step not only to parents, but to all food safety advocates. Caroline Smith DeWaal is one of these advocates, and works as the food safety director at the Center For Science in the Public Interest. She told AP's Sam Hananel that these new steps would be a “very positive step.”

“This will allow them to hopefully reduce the burden of illness that can be linked to these outbreaks,” she said.

The Center For Science in the Public Interest is calling for even more steps to protect against other outbreaks, such as salmonella strains which are resistant to antibiotics.

“These new methods are an extension of the USDA´s emphasis on using the data we and industry have in order to get in front of the problems that can harm consumers,” Hagen told USA Today.

“If we get a red flag from a test result, there are all kind of opportunities for us to help prevent harm.”