The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Wednesday it will soon begin tracing meat contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 back to the source before illnesses are linked to the product and in some cases even before test results are confirmed positive.

three-grilled-burgers-iphone.jpgIf put into practice, the move would be a major shift in meat safety policy.

“The additional safeguards we are announcing today will improve our ability to prevent foodborne illness by strengthening our food safety infrastructure,” said Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen in a statement. “Together, these measures will provide us with more tools to protect our food supply, resulting in stronger public health protections for consumers.”

Under the new policy, USDA will allow for traceback of beef products if routine test results are preliminarily positive, but not yet confirmed, for E. coli O157:H7 or other disease-causing strains of E. coli soon to be formally considered adulterants.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service said that it would “move quickly to identify the supplier of the product” and then if the test is confirmed positive, notify any processors who received contaminated beef from the implicated supplier to recall product.

Currently, FSIS does not conduct a traceback investigation unless there are illnesses linked to the product. 

“We will be acting at the presumptive stage,” Hagen said, adding that the policy would speed up the investigation by a day or two. “When we’re talking about traceback, every minute counts.”

Consumer groups and lawmakers welcomed the move and many noted they’d been asking for the change for years. 

“Rapid traceback is essential for reducing the impact of E. coli outbreaks, and protects both consumers and the meat industry,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in a statement. “When it comes to testing for E. coli, it makes sense to start traceback procedures upon a presumptively positive test result, and not lose valuable time waiting for a confirmation.”

Smith DeWaal also urged the USDA to do the same for meat contaminated with antibiotic-resistant strains of Salmonella, which last year hospitalized nearly 50 people and sickened 167. The agency has not designated Salmonella as an adulterant, only seven strains of disease-causing E. coli, so Salmonella-contaminated meat products are recalled only if foodborne illnesses are linked to them.    

“USDA appears to be focusing intensely on E.coli, which is good news for consumers as grilling season approaches,” said Smith DeWaal. But more action is needed.

Consumer Federation of America called the move “a good step forward.”

“Tracing contaminated food through the food supply chain quickly and effectively is essential to protect consumers from foodborne illness,” said Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at CFA. “By conducting traceback activities early, following a presumptive positive test result for E. coli O157:H7, FSIS could potentially prevent foodborne illness outbreaks from occurring in the first place.”

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), a stalwart supporter of strong food safety regulations, also praised the new traceback policy and said she was encouraged the agency was also implementing some 2008 provisions to improve the food recall process.

“Together, these improvements may prevent unnecessary risks to consumers,” said DeLauro in a statement.

The recall measures FSIS announced are part of the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, otherwise known as the 2008 Farm Bill.

The new regulations require establishments to “prepare and maintain recall procedures, to notify FSIS within 24 hours that a meat or poultry product that could harm consumers has been shipped into commerce, and to document each reassessment of their hazard control and critical control point (HACCP) system food safety plans,” according to FSIS. 

The agency also announced Wednesday that it was releasing a new guidance to help meat plants establish that their HACCP food safety systems work as they are supposed to, or are validated as being effective. FSIS is accepting comments on the guidance document, which can be viewed in draft form here.

The American Meat Institute said it agreed with the new policies, but did not respond directly to the agency’s decision to more liberally trace contamination further up the supply chain.

“That the

agency will begin traceback procedures based upon a presumptive positive

test for E. coli O157:H7 rather than waiting for a confirmation should

speed investigation and enhance public health,” said AMI Senior Vice President of Regulatory Affairs and General Counsel Mark Dopp.

FSIS is accepting comments on the Federal Register notice for the new traceback policy. A draft of the notice can be found here.

More detail on these policy changes can be found at the FSIS website.