The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) just announced new rules to track tainted meat, specifically to keep the potentially deadly E. coli pathogen out of hamburger and ground beef.
The updated USDA rules will enable inspectors to start looking for E. coli O157:H7-contaminated meat when early testing shows a possible contamination, said USA Today. The new rules are meant to quicken the USDA’s ability to track and contain the tainted beef. In the past, noted USA Today, the agency would not begin its probe until a number of tests were completed, which would typically take a few days.
The change “buys us 24 to 48 hours in terms of finding the sources,” said USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety, Elisabeth Hagen, wrote USA Today. The change is significant given that strain O157:H7 of the E. coli bacteria is not only the most commonly identified, it is responsible for the most severe illnesses, explained Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at consumer advocacy group, The Center For Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), wrote USA Today. Immediate tracking “is essential for minimizing the number of illnesses linked to an E. coli outbreak,” DeWaal told USA Today.
The new rules are part of the USDA’s larger plan for “using the data we and industry have in order to get in front of the problems that can harm consumers,” Hagen told USA Today. “If we get a red flag from a test result, there are all kind of opportunities for us to help prevent harm,” Hagen added.
Last year, we wrote that the USDA announced a zero tolerance E. coli policy intended to ensure that U.S. beef is safer to eat. That announcement came hand-in-hand with an initial report issued by the Food Safety Group, which was convened two years prior, was led by the White House, and was staffed by agencies from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the USDA.
E. coli symptoms show up within one-to-eight days and there are hundreds of strains with many found in humans and animals and some classified as shigella-toxin producing E. coli. These are very dangerous, even deadly.
Some E. coli strains are needed for digestion. Those that are harmful, deadly, and toxin producing, may cause severe diarrhea, stomach cramps, and bloody stool. Most seriously, kidney failure and death may occur. For instance, hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) is a serious disease in which red blood cells are destroyed and the kidneys fail, affecting about 10% of E. coli sufferers. Infants, children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems are especially at risk.
Other adverse effects, some long-term and serious, include Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and a form of reactive arthritis called Reiters Syndrome. Some victims require kidney transplants and may have scarred intestines that cause lasting digestive difficulty and some patients who supposedly recovered, can experience long-term health problems. E. coli can also cause disease in the brain, seizures, coma, or blood clots in the brain.