US food safety inspectors will immediately alert meat companies when a sample tests positive for a deadly E. coli bacteria, instead of waiting until an investigation is complete, the US Agriculture Department said this week.
The USDA's policy change came after at least 18 people fell ill by eating contaminated hamburgers from a ConAgra Beef plant in Greeley, Colorado, reports Reuters. The meat processor is owned by ConAgra Foods, the second biggest US food company.
The USDA confirmed that it had taken ten days to contact ConAgra Beef after federal meat inspectors first detected E. coli 0157:H7.
The bacteria can cause bloody diarrhoea, dehydration and kidney damage, with children and the elderly being most at risk.
While tests confirmed the bacteria's presence on 19 June, the company was not notified until 29 June, said Steve Cohen, spokesman for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. ConAgra voluntarily recalled 354,200 pounds of ground beef products the following day.
Under the USDA's new policy, federal meat inspectors will immediately inform meat processors - both verbally and in writing - when a positive E. coli 0157:H7 sample is found, Cohen said, allowing companies to take "proactive steps" and not wait until the USDA completes its investigation.
Previously, the USDA waited until an investigation could confirm the source of the contaminated meat, a process which could last up to five days.
Consumer groups and the meat industry praised the USDA's change in policy.
"This is good for the companies and good for consumers," said Carol Tucker Foreman, food policy director for the Consumer Federation of America.
J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute, said quick notification of an E.coli threat will "help packers prepare for any outcome - including a product recall."