WASHINGTON - The government plans to speed up the process for tracking E. coli in meat, a move that will help authorities more quickly find the source of bacteria outbreaks and hasten recalls of tainted food.
The Agriculture Department said Wednesday that it would begin tracing the source of potentially contaminated ground beef as soon as there is a positive test.
Current procedures require officials to wait until additional testing confirms E. coli before starting an investigation. Under the new system, officials could get started 24 to 48 hours sooner.
“The further ahead that we can get, the more we can be focusing on preventing contaminated product from reaching consumers in the first place,’’ said Elisabeth Hagen, the department’s undersecretary for food safety.
Once a batch of meat tests “presumptively positive’’ for E. coli, the Agriculture Department can immediately begin efforts to link products, companies, and the pathogen to the supplier and any other processors that received contaminated meat.
Thousands of people are sickened each year by E. coli, bacteria that can cause diarrhea, dehydration, and, in the most severe cases, kidney failure. The very young, the elderly, and those with weak immune systems are the most susceptible to illness, which can in rare cases be fatal.
About 13,000 to 15,000 samples of ground beef and beef trimmings are tested for E. coli every year. The earlier tracking procedure will begin when the common O157:H7 strain, which causes the most severe illnesses, is detected.
Roughly 65 to 75 samples of ground beef test presumptively positive each year, and 95 percent of those are later confirmed positive with additional testing, according to Agriculture Department data.
Caroline Smith DeWaal, at the Center For Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, called the announcement 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 new E. coli plan is expected to go into effect in July.
In the future, the Agriculture Department will expand testing for six other strains of E. coli.