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  Clinton seeks to test hot dogs for Listeria


By Arshad Mohammed

WASHINGTON, May 08 (Reuters) - President Bill Clinton said on Saturday he planned to require food companies to test hot dogs, lunch meats and other prepared foods for potentially deadly Listeria bacteria that kills about 500 Americans each year.

Listeria, which can cause high fever, nausea, and stiff necks as well as miscarriages in pregnant women, has forced dozens of food recalls in recent years. The bacteria were responsible for a 1998 US outbreak blamed for 21 deaths and more than 100 illnesses in 22 states.

While Listeria contamination in processed meat products has received the most media attention, the bacteria have also prompted recalls of packaged salads, cheese, smoked fish, chocolate milk and other non-meat foods.

"Millions of Americans get sick from eating contaminated food each year," Clinton said in his weekly radio address. "A staggering 20 percent of Listeria infections result in death."

"It's rarely the healthy adults who come down with Listeria infections. Instead it's the most vulnerable among us: infants, the elderly, pregnant woman and those whose immune systems have been weakened by chemotherapy or AIDS," he added.

To combat the illness, known as listeriosis, the president ordered the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop proposed regulations requiring companies to make systematic checks for the bacteria at food plants.

The goal, he said, was to cut in half over five years the number of illnesses related to Listeria, which sickens 2,500 Americans each year and kills about 20% of those infected, according to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The rules, which US officials hope could go into effect by the end of the year, aim to prevent cross-contamination at processing plants, set appropriate standards for ready-to-eat products and ensure they are safe throughout their shelf life.

Clinton also ordered the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to study further steps, including publishing guidance to help food processors and retailers to avoid the bacteria that thrive in refrigerated temperatures, and to work with the USDA on studying whether enhanced food labeling would help protect consumers.

It has not been decided whether the rules, which have yet to be written up and would be subjected to a period for public comment before becoming final, would require testing of the packaged end product.

Consumer groups have urged the USDA for more than a year to require end-product testing, contending that is a key way to evaluate if plant food safety procedures are working properly.

The meat processing industry generally opposes mandatory end-product testing as expensive and inconclusive and argues that packages of hot dogs, sausages and other prepared meats could be contaminated at the store or in a home refrigerator.

The Clinton administration plans to hold a public meeting on May 15 to gather comments from consumer groups and the meat industry, and the USDA and HHS have 120 days to report to the president on their plans to meet his goal of cutting in half the number of Listeria-related illnesses by 2005.

Consumer activists praised the administration's latest measures as evidence of a White House commitment to make the US food supply safer.

"I strongly endorse their goals. They are taking some steps in the right direction," Carol Tucker Foreman, director of food policy for the Consumer Federation of America, said on Friday. "What the industry is doing now obviously isn't working well because they keep having outbreaks of Listeria."

Clinton also used his weekly radio address to criticize the Republican-led Congress for having failed this week to give the Democratic White House all of the $68 million it is seeking for its effort to improve US food safety.

"The Congress took a major step backward by refusing to fully fund our food safety initiative," Clinton said.

"In fact, they've now voted to block funding for our new efforts to protect millions of American families from the dangers of Salmonella poisoning in eggs," he added. "We should be doing more, not less, to ensure the safety of our food."

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