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Foodborne Illness

US sets new ground beef procedures to stop E. coli outbreaks

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Wednesday announced new procedures for detecting and removing unsafe ground beef from grocery stores and suppliers as part of efforts to prevent potentially deadly illnesses caused by contaminated meat.

The move "will allow the agency to trace contaminated ground beef back to its source more quickly, remove it from commerce, and find the root cause of the incident to prevent it from recurring," said USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

Under its new procedures, FSIS will conduct immediate investigations of businesses whose ground beef tests positive for E. coli O157:H7 during initial testing, and at suppliers that provided source materials.

In the past, FSIS began investigations at the grinding facility only after a presumptive positive test result was confirmed, which can take two days. Tracing E. Coli outbreaks back to their source could have taken 30 days, USDA added.

"A critical component of preventing foodborne illness is quickly identifying sources of contamination and removing unsafe products from store shelves," said Brian Ronholm, USDA's deputy under secretary for food safety.

The announcement comes a month after USDA proposed to require all makers of raw ground beef products to keep more detailed records, making it easier for retailers to trace the sources of their supplies.

The E. coli O157:H7 strain can cause severe abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea and vomiting. In young children and the elderly a life-threatening form of kidney failure can develop. Exposure is linked to contaminated water or food, including raw vegetables and unpasteurized milk as well as undercooked ground beef.

USDA said "dozens more" ground beef recalls could occur once the new protections are fully in place, which is expected to be in mid-December.