WASHINGTON (AP)--Some meat plants would get more scrutiny from federal regulators in return for access to nationwide markets for their sausage and other products, under a plan endorsed by the Agriculture Department and consumer groups.

The proposal, which the plants support, would "enhance the safety of the product and enhance consumer confidence," Margaret Glavin, associate administrator of USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, told the Senate Agriculture Committee April 6.

Some 2,500 plants nationwide are now banned from selling their products across state lines because they chose to be regulated by state governments rather than the Agriculture Department. Many are family-owned businesses whose owners say they want to avoid what they contend is the hassle and expense of dealing with USDA inspectors.

The plan, which needs congressional approval, would require the plants and state programs to comply with federal regulations in exchange for ending the ban on interstate shipments. USDA would have to test meat produced in the state-inspected plants for salmonella and also audit state programs annually to ensure they are complying with federal standards.

"Pathogens do not recognize distinctions between federal and state systems or large and small plants. Contaminated meat is a public health threat regardless of its source," said Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute.

Twenty-five states now have their own inspection programs for meat and poultry. Under a 1967 law, plants are allowed to be inspected by states whose programs are "at least equal to" the federal system. But some state programs have been criticized as lax.

For years, state-inspected meat plants have pushed to end the ban on interstate sales.

"As small businesses, we must be able to expand our presence in the marketplace, or we will die," said Michael Eickman, owner of Eickman's Processing Co. Inc. of Seward, IL.

He said he prefers to deal with state rather than federal officials, even though he considers the Illinois inspection program "is just as tough as" USDA's. Other processors indicate that the state programs save money because they do not have pay inspectors as much for overtime work.

"It's just plain stupid" to ban interstate sales of meat from such plants, said Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican who is co-sponsoring legislation to implement the plan with Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-SD.

The American Meat Institute, which represents major meatpackers, opposes the legislation, saying there should be a single, national inspection system.

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