WASHINGTON (AP)--Bacterial contamination of meat and poultry products has fallen because of salmonella limits the meatpacking industry is fighting in court, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said Sept. 20.

"These standards are reasonable and reachable, and most importantly, the standards are working," Glickman told the Senate Agriculture Committee.

A federal judge in Texas blocked the Agriculture Department from closing down a Dallas beef processor that has failed at least four sets of tests for the bacteria.

The department says that the prevalence of salmonella in a plant is a good measure of its overall cleanliness, a position that the judge and the industry disputed. Industry officials say they do not mind testing for the bacteria but do not believe there is a scientific basis for using test failures to close a plant.

Salmonella rates have dropped in recent years on all types of meat and poultry, according to USDA.

The incidence of salmonella in ground beef dropped from 7.5% in 1996 to 5% in 2000, from 20% to 9.9% in broiler chickens, 8.7% to 7.7% in hogs, and 50% to 30% in ground turkeys.

Industry officials attribute the decline to measures that plants have taken to sanitize animal carcasses, meat and equipment. They say USDA's salmonella limits were arbitrarily set and don't taken into account regional and seasonal differences in the incidence of the bacteria.

The limits were based on a survey of the average incidence of salmonella in plants nationwide. For ground beef, no more than 7.5% of the samples taken in one testing can be positive for salmonella.

"Such standards do not measure whether a product is safe or whether the operation that produced the product is sanitary," said Dane Bernard, vice president of the National Food Processors Association.

USDA, which is appealing the judge's decision, plans to issue additional testing standards for camplyobacter, a bacterium commonly found in chicken, Glickman said.

Such standards force plants to make improvements, he said.

"Without some kind of benchmark, we have no way of measuring success and progress in reducing contamination and foodborne illness," Glickman said.

"Without performance standards, we would be relying on little more than an industry honor code."

Glickman, who will leave office in January, also said USDA needs more legal authority to regulate meat processors, including the right to order them to recall contaminated products. Recalls are now done voluntarily.

The agency also should be allowed to fine processors who violate safety standards, Glickman said. The department's only options now are to close a plant or to ask the Justice Department to file criminal charges.

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