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Two Agencies Take Steps to Improve Food Safety

Strengthening its efforts to keep a deadly strain of E. coli out of meat sold to consumers, the Department of Agriculture said Friday that it would begin regular testing of meat trimmings used to make ground beef.

At the same time, the Food and Drug Administration said it was working to develop mandatory standards for growing, harvesting and processing fruits and vegetables, going well beyond the rules in place today.

The announcements were the latest signs that Washington was moving forward with efforts to overhaul the food safety system. On Thursday, the House of Representatives passed a bill to strengthen the F.D.A.’s oversight of food safety by giving it added powers and mandating more frequent inspections of food processing plants. The Senate is expected to take up similar legislation this autumn.

The Agriculture Department said it would begin regular testing of “bench trim,” the fat and meat trimmed from cuts like steaks and roasts as they are prepared in processing plants. Bench trim is normally added to other meat used in ground beef.

Government inspectors perform tests for E. coli in the slaughterhouse on most meat used in ground beef, before it goes to the processing plant. But the bench trim had not previously been tested by the inspectors, creating a potentially dangerous hole in the government’s food-safety regimen.

The bacterium Escherichia coli is common in the human intestine and is usually not dangerous. But a virulent strain known as O157:H7 has been the source of numerous outbreaks of serious food-borne illness — and many recalls of tainted ground beef — in recent years. The strain can cause fatal illness, and ground beef poses a special risk because the germ gets mixed deep into the meat, where it may survive cooking.

Jerold R. Mande, deputy under secretary for food safety at the Agriculture Department, said the government tests of bench trim were to begin in about a month. They are intended to verify testing for E. coli in hamburger that is already being done by plant operators, and many of the operators already test bench trim for the bacterium, he said.

The new rules apply to about 600 meat processing plants, where government inspectors perform a variety of tests every day the plants operate.

On average, the bench trim at an individual plant will be tested two or three times a year, for a total of 1,500 samplings nationwide over 12 months, Mr. Mande said. Those tests should enable the government to determine whether there is a pattern of E. coli contamination in bench trim.

“If it turns out in the course of doing 1,500 samples in a year we see that there is contamination coming from this,” he said, “then we’ve got to go back further up the stream and find out how they’re handling this bench trim and treat it differently.”

Scott J. Goltry, vice president of food safety and inspection services of the American Meat Institute, a trade association representing meat processors, said the industry supported the added government testing. He said plants already conducted their own tests of bench trim, in addition to doing many other tests to ensure processed meat was safe.

Bill Marler, a lawyer in Seattle who specializes in food poisoning cases, said that bench trim was suspected as a source of E. coli in many ground beef recalls. He said the new testing represented an important change. “You’re adding an additional layer of assurance that the ultimate product, the hamburger, is less likely to be contaminated,” he said.

Also on Friday, the Food and Drug Administration issued voluntary guidelines for the growing and processing of tomatoes, leafy greens and melons, three types of crops that account for the greatest number of cases of illness from eating tainted produce. The guidelines were a first step toward creating a system of mandatory regulations for the handling of produce.

They are similar to procedures that have been worked out by the produce industry and the food agency after highly publicized food scares in recent years. As a result, officials said that a large number of growers and processors already followed many procedures set out in the guidelines, including steps to improve the hygiene of workers picking crops and testing for contaminants in processing plants.

Michael R. Taylor, a senior adviser to the F.D.A. commissioner, Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, said it would take the agency about two years to issue standards, including requirements for food-safety plans, that it could enforce in farms and processing plants.

He said that effort would be greatly strengthened if the bill passed on Thursday in the House became law. The bill would give the agency additional power to enforce standards like those contained in the produce guidelines.


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