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.


  • Ted

    A little overstated, isn’t it? Trace back will go somewhat further back along the food chain but certainly not to the ultimate source, which would be the farm of origin. Ideally there would be routine traceback to the farm of origin but that would require a competent recordkeeping system like NAIS. Small producers will never permit that — historically they gang together in activist organizations like R-CALF to block any system that might identify them with their product in the marketplace. They are desperate to preserve their anonymity rather than accept responsibility for product liability. When it comes to documenting product quality and safety small farmers explicitly do not want you to “know your farmer”.

  • JJ Goodwin

    In the interests of consistency, maybe we should treat the beef industry like we are trying to treat the raw milk industry. Ban it! Beef gets tens of thousands of people sick every year, yet all that happens is “a better way of tracing”. If this was raw milk, it would be “Stop all sales!”
    Oh, that is right, I forgot one is small farmers, some good some bad, the other is the “beef industry”.

  • Fred

    Regarding NAIS — anytime USDA/FDA, etc goes to a one-size-fits-all solution the big producers are given a corporate-government competitive tool to put smaller entities out of business through excessive and inappropriate compliance costs.
    Not too surprisingly smaller producers take a similar umbrage at being regulated out of business — but don’t have the cozy revolving door agency relationships to modify the outcomes. So the outcome is Big Biz in their pay to play scenario have many “regulations” mostly designed to make consumers FEEL safe — while smaller farmers get blitzed out of business.
    However, separate scale-appropriate regs are possible and doable.
    Consumers looking for a viable alternative in the market should understand this and clamor for scale-appropriate rules if they want a real choice and to preserve and enhance local-scale agriculture.

  • Marco Hoffman

    The beef industry — prodded by government regulation — does seem to be cleaning up its act. Last year there were only two major outbreaks involving ground beef (Tyson and Hannaford). There were 20 confirmed illnesses in those incidents. There have been no ground beef outbreaks so far this year.
    But just since Jan. 1, 2012 alone, there have been five major outbreaks involving unpasteurized dairy, with 142 people poisoned, including several kids still in hospital with kidney failure.
    Given the vast difference in the number of people who eat ground beef versus the number of people who drink raw milk, this seems to be a public health issue, not a case of agribusiness versus the small farmer.
    But there are no current efforts to ban raw milk. All the recent state legislative efforts regarding raw milk are to liberalize raw milk sales, as would Ron Paul’s proposal before Congress.
    Warning consumers about the potential risks from unpasteurized dairy is not banning raw milk — it is simply responsible public health policy, similar to the public health recommendations to cook ground beef to 160 F.

  • desert rose

    Is the greater chance of the product being contaminated with eColi at the farm of origin or in the processing plant?? More contamination of product comes from the slaughter and processing when the carcass is opened in the skinning process. There the outside of the hide or workers with hands,aprons or knives not kept rinsed off can cause the contamination of the carcass.Also when the carcass is evicserated and the guts removed there are chances of intestines being accidentally cut or tore spilling the contents and causing contamination.
    Most of the small “mom and pop” operations take great care in their slaughter process. They have to,it’s their “bread and butter” to make sure the process is clean and sanitary. Their business loss has a greater impact on them than a big corperation red meat slaughter plant.
    The bigger plants will work 8-10 hr shifts,6 or 7 days a week.don’t you think that will cause fatige and lethargy in the plant workers and even in the inspectors??? Why is there such a turn over in inspectors in those plants?? They run so many animals through a day to get the volume out,somethings are going to be missed.
    And the trace back would a great help especially when the smaller plants buy trim from the bigger ones for the snack sticks,and other ground products they make when they don’t have enough trim from threir own slaughtered animals. You hear about a small processor getting a postive eColi test coming back but you don’t hear if it was solely their own slaughtered animal or if they bought outside trim, who did they buy it from!

  • doc raymond

    Traceback to source, when possible, is a great move by Dr. Hagen and the Food Safety and Inspection Service. Especially when a positive sample of ground beef had a sole source provider. Many of those combos have been divided ujp and sold to several downstream plants. This will help remove the possibly contaminated product before it goes to retail, and is truly a preventive step, which is what Dr. Hagen has said she wants to do since day one on the job–prevent rather than react.

  • Minkpuppy

    Um…we’re already taking down the supplier information at the time of sampling. Have been for months and months. This is just the “official” announcement because we will now be entering the information into PHIS instead of just putting it into a memo in the file cabinet.

  • Tracing a piece of meat or ground beef from multiple sources is ScoringAg doing since 2005. Just recently a successful pilot by Dr. Dan Buskirk and his MSU team using ScoringAgs’s database, began putting the pieces in place to trace beef all the way to the consumer and for the required FSMA rule.