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Ag Dept. Told: Tighten Enforcement

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Agriculture Department needs to tighten its enforcement of sanitation standards in meat and poultry plants and require processors to do more testing for deadly microbes, auditors said today.

USDA's switch to a science-based inspection system four years ago is improving meat safety, but the agency ``reduced its oversight beyond what was prudent and necessary for the protection of the consumer,'' according to report by the department's inspector general.

The new inspection system requires companies to identify potential hazards in slaughterhouses and processing plants and implement controls for foodborne pathogens. Previously, companies relied on USDA inspectors to find contaminated meat by poking and sniffing it. The inspectors' job now is to ensure that the plants are following their sanitation plans and to do some microbial testing.

Some of the plans are inadequate, however, the auditors said. Although packers are required by the department to identify at least one ``critical control point'' in their processing procedures, some of the plans reviewed by the auditors did not list a single one, which limits USDA scrutiny of the facility, the report said.

Critical control points can include anything from a steam pasteurization unit that treats cattle carcasses in a slaughterhouse to temperature controls in a processing plant. USDA inspectors are required to monitor critical control points to make sure they are working properly.

The department ``also needs to assert itself more aggressively in the plants' testing programs,'' the auditors said.

Plants are shipping products to consumers without testing for specific pathogens like E. coli O157:H7 or Listeria monocytogenes even after tests for generic versions of those bacteria are positive, the report found. And plants aren't testing at all for some major pathogens such as campylobacter, the auditors said.

A year ago, the department required plants to reassess their sanitation plans to control for listeria, a problem with hot dogs, deli meats and other ready-to-eat products, but didn't require plants to document the review, the auditors said.

USDA officials had no immediate comment this morning on the report.

Last month, President Clinton announced that the department would require processors to start testing for listeria. USDA officials are considering tighter standards for E. coli, a problem in ground beef.

The auditors reviewed 15 of the 6,000 plants nationwide that the department oversees.
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