When tests for the deadly E. coli O157:H7 pathogen come back with positive results, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) makes sure the product does not reach consumers, but that’s about it.

Nobody tracks down the source of contamination or figures out if there might be additional meat that is contaminated and making its way to consumers.

“Why are they doing these investigations if they’re not doing them to put their arms around all the product and finding out what went wrong?” Donna Rosenbaum asked the Chicago Tribune.  She is executive director of Safe Tables Our Priority, the food safety group based in Northbrook, IL.

According to the Chicago newspaper, full-blown investigations only occur if there is an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 illnesses.  Outbreaks occur only when contaminated meat has reached consumers.

When tests for E. coli O157:H7 are positive outside of an outbreak scenario, USDA does not conduct such an investigation.  The contaminated product may not be shipped, but that’s it.

“We’re paying so much money for the (testing) program, and it’s not being used to protect the public to the best of its ability,” Rosenbaum added.

USDA says the reason positive test results do not trigger a full-blown investigation is that the risk is low.  The number of positive test results not associated with outbreaks is also low–less than 60 a year since 2001.  Food safety advocates say that would not add that much to FSIS’s investigative load.

Consumer groups want Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to step-up investigations for routine tests that come back positive. The American Meat Institute, however, says a “test and hold” requirement would be more effective. That would require meat processors to have test results in hand before shipping their product.

The industry-led AMI figures “test and hold” could have prevented 80 percent of the E. coli O157:H7 recalls last year, and all 2009 recalls for Listeria.