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WASHINGTON - Accompanied by the parents of a 2-year-old boy killed by food poisoning, federal lawmakers yesterday introduced legislation to modify the nation's food-safety laws.
The bills would give more enforcement power to the Department of Agriculture, which Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa) says has been "virtually disarmed" by meat-industry lawsuits. The USDA enforces food-safety standards in the country's 6,500 meat and poultry plants.
The legislation introduced in the House and Senate yesterday would grant the USDA greater powers to set limits for microbial contamination in meat plants, conduct tests to measure compliance with those limits, and shut down plants that repeatedly exceed them.
The bill was introduced on the heels of a series of highly publicized recalls that have since become some of the USDA's largest such events. The lawmakers say changes to the nation's meat inspection system, which relies heavily on self-policing, discourages aggressive enforcement by government inspectors and often fails to protect consumers until it is too late.
"The meat and poultry industry has taken a hard line, that they will go to court to gut the basic food-safety protections that we have," said Harkin, who with Sen. Arlen Specter (R. Pa.) is primary sponsor of the Senate bill. "If this is left to stand, the situation is a recipe for repeated food-safety disaster."
Harkin was joined by Reps. Anna Eshoo (D., Calif.) and Rosa L. DeLauro (D., Conn.), who introduced the House version of the bill. The legislation is officially titled the Meat and Poultry Pathogen Reduction and Enforcement Act of 2003, but supporters call it Kevin's Law in memory of Kevin Kowalcyk, a Wisconsin toddler killed by E. coli bacterial poisoning in 2001. His parents attended yesterday's news conference.