The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), is taking steps to make it quicker to trace contaminated ground beef back to its source.

The aim is to remove contaminated meat products from sale as soon as possible and find the root cause of the incident to prevent it from recurring.

Under new traceback procedures announced by the FSIS last week, the agency will conduct immediate investigations at businesses whose ground beef tests positive for E. coli O157:H7 during initial testing and at suppliers that provided source materials.

Previously, investigations at the grinding facility were launched only after a presumptive positive test result was confirmed, which can take two days. A similar investigation of supplying slaughter establishments was undertaken 30 days later.

Such investigations will now begin as soon as the FSIS receives a presumptive positive result and the grinding facility can provide supplier information. Brian Ronholm, deputy under secretary for food safety, pointed out that nearly all initial positive test results are ultimately confirmed, and acting sooner could make a significant difference in the initial stages of a food safety investigation and in preventing foodborne illnesses.

As part of its investigation, the FSIS will review records to determine whether there was a breakdown in the grinding or supplying establishment's food safety systems. The agency will also assess whether the supplying establishment had shipped product that may be contaminated to other grinding facilities or processors, and take the necessary steps to remove potentially contaminated products from sale.

These new procedures follow other recent initiatives to improve the safety of ground beef, including a proposed requirement for retailers to keep records of their source suppliers for all ground beef products.