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WASHINGTON - The U.S. Agriculture Department on Tuesday said it was "declaring war" on a deadly strain of E. coli bacteria by ordering all U.S. beef plants to review their food safety measures and by expanding its own testing operations, Reuters reports.
The USDA has been looking for ways to repair its image after a massive recall of ground beef by ConAgra Foods Inc. two months ago.
Elsa Murano, USDA undersecretary for food safety, said the department was "declaring war" on E. coli O157:H7 because the prevalence of the bacteria may be rising in meat products.
An internal review by the USDA found most U.S. beef plants failed to have strict enough safeguards to prevent ground beef and other meat products from being contaminated.
"Scientific data clearly demonstrates the pathogen is more prevalent than previously estimated and that E.coli O157:H7 is a hazard that is reasonably likely to occur at all stages of handling of ground beef products," Murano said.
E. coli O157:H7, typically acquired through contaminated food or water, causes an estimated 73,000 infections and 61 deaths in the United States each year, according to government data.
To protect consumers, the USDA said it would require all U.S. beef slaughter and grinding plants to perform a "comprehensive reexamination" of their food safety systems. Plants must include in their system at least one safeguard to reduce the risk of E. coli, such as washing cow carcasses.
Government food safety inspectors will also begin random E. coli O157:H7 testing at all beef grinding operations, some of which have been exempt from testing.
The largest U.S. beef plants will have 60 days to review their food safety procedures, with a similar requirement to be phased in for smaller plants, Murano said.
The USDA did not specify what kinds of additional prevention measures meat plants should adopt.