May 2, 2012 -- As grilling season fast approaches, the USDA today announced initiatives to better protect consumers from contaminants that can turn meat deadly.
Officials told reporters that the new efforts will allow the agency to focus on the prevention of outbreaks rather than simply responding to them after they occur.
"We will take these tools and do a better job of protecting consumers," USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Elisabeth Hagen, MD, said in a media briefing.
The tools include changes to what are called traceback procedures, which the agency uses to investigate outbreaks and determine their sources. Until now, policy dictated that the agency wait until laboratory testing delivered a positive result before investigating a suspected contamination.
In the plan announced today, Hagen said a federal response would come sooner if routine sampling revealed what Hagen referred to as a "presumptive positive" for harmful contaminants, such as the toxin-producing bacteria E. coli.
"Acting at the presumptive level buys us a day, perhaps two days," said Hagen. "Every minute counts when you talk about a traceback."
Isolating the source of the contamination could prevent or limit its entrance to consumer markets. The agency will implement other measures as it takes what Hagen describes as a "preventive approach rather than a reactive approach" to food-borne illness.
Food companies will be required to establish and maintain written recall procedures to be followed if a contamination does occur, and to keep a paper trail for any changes to their hazard control plans. In the event of a contamination, they will have 24 hours to inform the Food Safety and Inspection Service, the division of the USDA responsible for maintaining the safety of the nation's food supply.
Response to USDA Plans
The new direction, which focuses on prevention and faster response times, is a huge improvement over past USDA practices, says Philip M. Tierno Jr., PhD, director of clinical microbiology at NYU Langone Medical Center and clinical professor at the NYU School of Medicine.
"We will likely see a reduction in unnecessary illnesses and possibly the prevention of a [death] or two," says Tierno, author of The Secret Life of Germs.
Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest also supports the USDA's shift in priorities.
"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," CSPI's Food Safety Director Caroline Smith DeWaal says in a statement.
However, the statement calls on USDA to go further. They would like to see the agency require that retailers who grind their own beef, such as supermarkets, keep records about such products. Doing so will enable investigators to trace the source of an outbreak that occurs when the meat is ground.
Consumers Should Also Take Protective Measures
Supermarket shoppers, meanwhile, can take steps to protect themselves from food-borne illnesses, says Tierno. While he says that most people do a good job of thoroughly cooking meat, they are not as careful when they are shopping.
"When you pick up a package of meat, your hands can get contaminated," says Tierno, referring to the often leaky plastic-wrapped packages of ground meat and chicken bought in markets. "It doesn't take much."
He advises consumers to pick out meat last, to keep the packages away from other foods, and, until you have had a chance to wash them, to avoid putting your hands in your mouth or rubbing your eyes. He also recommends carrying an alcohol-based gel or wipes containing a small amount of bleach to clean yourself up after handling a package.
"You can't live in a germ-free bubble," he says, "but you should be aware of contaminants and how to break their transmission."