Last week, the government unveiled new provisions to keep potentially deadly E. coli from infiltrating summer barbecues and other outings when folks sink their teeth into meat.
The updated rules by the U.S. Department of Agriculture allow inspectors to begin looking for meat contaminated with E. coli as soon as early testing shows a potential problem. The policy is designed to speed up the USDA's ability to track down contaminated hamburger and ground beef and contain them.
Under the new policy, the USDA will act quicker after the first signs of a potentially deadly spread. The agency previously did not begin investigating possible contaminated meat until several tests were completed, often taking days.
The policy change "buys us 24 to 48 hours in terms of finding the sources," says USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Elisabeth Hagen.
E. coli (O157:H7) is the most commonly identified strain of E. coli. It also causes the most severe cases of illness, says Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at The Center For Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group.
The ability to quickly track back to the source of contamination "is essential for minimizing the number of illnesses linked to an E. coli outbreak," DeWaal said.
Most people recover from an E. coli infection within five to seven days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But there are instances in which exposure can be deadly. For instance, in 1993 four children died and hundreds of people got ill after eating E.-coli-tainted beef at Jack in the Box restaurants.
The new provisions are part of the USDA's emphasis on "using the data we and industry have in order to get in front of the problems that can harm consumers," Hagen said. "If we get a red flag from a test result, there are all kind of opportunities for us to help prevent harm."
Responding more swiftly to potentially contaminated meat is one part of new approaches by the USDA. Other efforts include an early reporting system that requires companies to notify the USDA's within 24 hours if potentially harmful meat or poultry has been shipped, and adding six new E. coli strains to a government watch list.
The CDC says the six strains sickened 451 people in 2010, hospitalized 69 and killed one.