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    Democrats Seek Stronger USDA Food Safety Powers

    WASHINGTON - A group of Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday said they plan to introduce legislation giving the U.S. Agriculture Department the power to order food recalls and penalize troubled meat plants.

    WASHINGTON - A group of Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday said they plan to introduce legislation giving the U.S. Agriculture Department the power to order food recalls and penalize troubled meat plants.

    The lawmakers joined consumer advocates in criticizing the Bush administration for not doing enough to protect consumers from tainted food products, noting the series of massive meat recalls last year.

    "We are facing a food safety crisis," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat. "It's time Congress gave USDA the authority to effectively protect the public health from unsafe food."

    The five Democrats from the House of Representatives and Senate said the legislation would give the USDA authority to order recalls when meat was suspected of contamination.

    Currently, the department can only recommend a recall after federal meat inspectors discover food safety problems, although plants usually abide by the USDA recommendations.

    The lawmakers said they would also seek legislation to give federal inspectors the power to fine plants up to $100,000 per day for food safety violations.

    Meat industry groups and the Bush administration have opposed the idea of seeking mandatory recall authority, saying it could take longer for a tainted product to be withdrawn from the market.

    "We believe that adding more inspectors and more enforcement authority to USDA's very substantial regulatory authorities cannot be deemed 'the solution' to a scientific challenge," James Hodges, president of the American Meat Institute, said in a statement.

    "Rather, we need to develop new and better science that will truly help us eradicate bacteria from farm to table."

    Government data has linked contaminated food to more than 76 million U.S. illnesses and 5,000 deaths annually, according to Reuters.

    The federal government defended its food safety record, saying it has increased meat testing for harmful bacteria and has proposed a boost in federal funding for next year.

    "The Bush administration has a strong record in its food safety efforts," said USDA Undersecretary Elsa Murano.

    The White House earlier this month proposed an $899 million budget in fiscal 2004 for food safety, hoping to repair its image after last year's series of massive recalls.

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