The US Agriculture Department, trying to repair its image after the second-largest recall in history, is considering new regulations that would require meat companies to implement more food safety safeguards, consumer groups said on Wednesday.
USDA has asked consumers groups and the meat industry to provide suggestions on how it could avoid a repeat of ConAgra Foods massive beef recall earlier this month. Twenty-eight people in seven states have fallen ill in the past six weeks after eating meat tainted with E. coli.
Public health groups have criticised USDA on its handling of the ConAgra recall, saying lax oversight of meat plants and inconsistent enforcement allowed the contamination to occur.
"Its shocking how many holes in the safety net there are," said Tony Carbo, senior policy analyst for the Washington-based Government Accountability Project.
The Bush administration has strongly defended its food safety system as the best in the world, but admits there may be room for improvement.
"I do think there is a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking now on what happened with (ConAgra's recall)," Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman told reporters.
"We're going to try to go through this entire thing and see where we need to make changes in the system," she said.
ConAgra on July 19 recalled 18.6 million pounds of ground beef products from its Greeley, Colorado plant after USDA inspectors found samples that tested positive for E. coli O157:H7. The bacteria can be deadly for young children and the elderly, but can be avoided by proper cooking.
In the past two weeks, USDA has distributed a questionnaire to the meat industry and consumer groups asking if federal E. coli testing was effective and whether plants should implement more safeguards.
"We want to come up with a strategy that will certify a higher degree of safety," said Steve Cohen, spokesman for USDA's Foods Safety and Inspection Service.
"Testing alone is not sufficient, no matter how much you do, to guarantee you will not have E. coli," he said.
Consumer advocates, which met privately with top USDA officials on Wednesday, said the department was mulling over regulations requiring that meat companies implement new technology to kill harmful bacteria in food.
Carol Tucker Foreman, food policy director for the Consumer Federation of America, said one option USDA was looking into was mandatory irradiation of meat for certain plants.
Irradiation, which exposes foods to low doses of electrons or gamma rays in order to destroy micro-organisms, is accepted scientifically as a processing technique, but some consumer groups have raised fears about foods subjected to any radiation.
Gary Weber, director of regulatory affairs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said the group was planning to issue a set of food safety recommendations to USDA by September.