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Changes coming to how food inspectors handle E. coli-contaminated beef

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(PIX11) – Food safety inspectors will no longer wait to take action if E. coli is found in ground beef, under new rules announced this week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

When ground beef tests positive for the bacterium, under the current policy, the department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service waits two days for those results to be confirmed by a laboratory before it initiates an investigation, the agency said. Most initial positive results are confirmed by lab tests.

Inspectors then wait 30 days to assess the slaughterhouse where the contaminated meat came from.

New regulations would change that and eliminate the waiting time, which the agency said could lead to more recalls of ground beef.

“Two days can make a significant difference in the initial stages of a food safety investigation and in preventing food-borne illnesses,” Brian Ronholm, USDA deputy under secretary for food safety, said in a statement Thursday.

Inspectors now will start scrutinizing slaughterhouses as soon as a batch of ground beef tests positive for E. coli, which normally lives in the intestines of humans and animals.

The new rules will go into effect Oct. 14. If the change had been implemented sooner, the USDA said it likely could have requested as many as 29 more recalls over the past two years.

It’s part of a USDA initiative to combat outbreaks of foodborne illnesses, the agency said.

So far this summer, the agency has started regularly testing ground beef for Salmonella in addition to E. coli. It also proposed butchers and stores that grind raw beef keep detailed logs of where that meat comes from so in case of an outbreak, they can track the contaminated beef to its source faster.

Symptoms of E. coli infections include severe abdominal cramps, diarrhea and vomiting.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate about 1 in 6 Americans are sickened by a foodborne illness every year, with about 128,000 cases requiring hospitalization and about 3,000 resulting in death.

Earlier this year, some 1.8 million pounds of ground beef were recalled in the U.S. due to possible E. coli contamination.