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WASHINGTON - The U.S. Agriculture Department on Wednesday said that food safety inspectors will begin immediately alerting meat companies when a sample tests positive for E. coli bacteria, instead of waiting until an investigation is complete, Reuters reports.
The USDA's policy change came after at least 18 people got sick after eating contaminated hamburgers from a ConAgra Beef Co. plant in Greeley, Colo.
The USDA acknowledged it took 10 days to contact ConAgra Beef after federal meat inspectors first detected E. coli 0157:H7. Tests confirmed the bacteria's presence on June 19, but the company was not notified until June 29, said Steve Cohen, spokesman for USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. ConAgra voluntarily recalled 354,200 pounds of ground beef products the following day.
Under the USDA's new policy, federal meat inspectors will immediately inform meat processors -- both verbally and in writing -- when a positive E. coli 0157:H7 sample is found, Cohen said.
That will allow companies to take "proactive steps" and not wait until the USDA completes its investigation, the agency said.
Previously, USDA waited until an investigation could confirm the source of the contaminated meat. The investigation can last as long as five days, USDA said.
Consumer groups and the meat industry backed USDA's change in policy.
J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute, said quick notification of an E.coli threat will "help packers prepare for any outcome -- including a product recall."
The USDA said it has sent an investigative team to the Colorado plant, which sold most of its meat to local Safeway stores.