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From: The eUpdate, 5.22.2012

FSIS Will Act on ‘Potential Positive’ E. Coli Tests

Policy will help USDA get head start on traceback process, agency says

Under a new USDA policy, the FSIS will be able to begin investigating cases of E. coli O157:H7 contamination in meat and poultry after receiving “presumptively positive” test results, rather than waiting for those preliminary results to be confirmed positive.

The USDA reports that approximately 65 to 75 samples of ground beef test presumptively positive each year, and 95% of those are later confirmed positive with additional testing.

This change will allow investigators to get a head start on the traceback process, which the USDA suggests could help halt potentially deadly outbreaks sooner. Previously, traceback investigations only began after illnesses were linked to the product in question.

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

The USDA reports that approximately 65 to 75 samples of ground beef test presumptively positive each year, and 95% of those are later confirmed positive with additional testing.

The move was largely praised by consumer groups and food safety advocates. “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 the Consumer Federation of America. "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."

But at least one food safety expert is wary of the potential for increased costs linked to full-scale investigations of results that might turn out to be false positives. “Following up on a lot of false positives would be a waste of everybody’s time, and potentially an economic burden on the industry,” said Mike Doyle, PhD, Regents Professor of Food Microbiology and director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia in Griffin.

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