USDA Meat Inspectors: No New Enforcement Needed

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The Agriculture Department does not need the expanded enforcement powers on food safety that Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman (search) suggested last year, the head of the USDA's meat inspection agency said Thursday.

Veneman suggested requiring that the department be notified when producers suspected their meat was contaminated with harmful bacteria and having USDA officials levy fines for repeated violations by meat packers (search).

The proposals were meant to prompt the department to look at meat and poultry safety, said Elsa Murano, undersecretary for food safety.

"In no way did she say 'we are going to do this,' or anything like that," Murano told reporters after testifying before a House appropriations' subcommittee on agriculture.

Veneman outlined her ideas last year after the agency was criticized for how it handled a series of meat recalls in 2002 which were linked to dozens of illnesses and at least eight deaths.

Murano said officials determined its existing enforcement capability is adequate.

Rather than require companies to report possible contamination to USDA (search), the department decided to train inspectors more thoroughly, Murano said.

Also, Murano noted the department already has the power to shut down plants. The loss of income would be more costly to a company than a fine, she said.