The US Agriculture Department, now investigating the second-largest meat recall in history, would gain authority to issue civil fines against companies that make unsafe food, under a bill introduced on Thursday by three Democrats.
The legislation would also give the USDA the authority to order a company to recall food suspected of contamination. Currently, the USDA can only urge a company to do so or threaten to pull federal meat inspectors out of a plant that refuses to cooperate.
ConAgra Foods last week recalled nearly 19 million pounds of ground beef after USDA inspectors found samples that tested positive for E. coli 0157:H7.
The new legislation was offered in the Senate by Tom Harkin of Iowa, and in the House by Lynn Rivers of Michigan and Dianna DeGette of Colorado.
Many of the 28 people sickened by the ConAgra meat live in Colorado.
"USDA and FDA need to do a much better job on enforcement, and they need better enforcement tools," said Harkin. "When a recall is necessary to get contaminated food off store shelves, companies should have to comply, period. It is not the time to have a fight about who is in charge."
DeGette criticised the USDA's response to the ConAgra outbreak, saying the department's action was "fraught with confusion" and with "inexplicable delays."
The USDA initially detected E. coli 0157:H7 in a ConAgra beef sample in mid-June, but waited 10 days to notify the company of its finding. ConAgra then ordered a recall of several hundred thousand pounds, which it later expanded to nearly 19 million pounds.
Consumer groups say the USDA needs authority to levy civil fines as a tool to discipline meat and poultry companies with frequent food safety violations.
Democrats have repeatedly tried to give the USDA more enforcement power in recent years, but proposed legislation has failed to gain wide support.
Earlier this month, the General Accounting Office found dozens of US meat plants that failed government food safety guidelines were allowed to continue selling hamburgers and chicken to consumers. The GAO said federal meat inspectors last year told 60 plants they would have to halt production because of faecal contamination and salmonella, but the USDA did not follow through in virtually all the cases.
Separately, the consumer groups Public Citizen and the Government Accountability Project called for a congressional investigation into the USDA's meat inspection program.
The consumer groups accused USDA officials of ignoring February warnings that E. coli-contaminated meat was being produced at the ConAgra plant.