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    USDA: Most US Meat Plants Violate Food Safety Rules

    WASHINGTON - About 60 percent of the largest U.S. meat plants failed to meet federal food safety regulations for preventing the E. coli bacteria in their products, the U.S. Agriculture Department said on Tuesday.

    WASHINGTON - About 60 percent of the largest U.S. meat plants failed to meet federal food safety regulations for preventing the E. coli bacteria in their products, the U.S. Agriculture Department said on Tuesday.

    With proposed record level funding for its food safety programs in fiscal 2004, USDA said it would begin imposing the "next generation of enforcement" on the U.S. meat industry as part of its "war against E. coli," Reuters reports.

    "We are doing everything possible to prevent outbreaks of E. coli in the summer, certainly to prevent these large recalls that we've had," USDA Undersecretary Elsa Murano told reporters.

    In September, the department ordered all U.S. beef slaughter and grinding plants to reexamine their food safety systems after inspectors discovered E. coli was more prevalent in meat than previously thought.

    A preliminary review of these reassessments found 60 percent of 35 large meat plants not meeting federal food safety regulations.

    "They were scientific and design issues and not direct food safety issues," said Garry McKee, administrator for USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. USDA said many plants could not verify that their food safety systems were adequate.

    McKee said the department has notified the plants to fix the problem within 30 days. Meat companies are also being told add at least one safeguard in their food safety systems that will reduce the risk of E. coli.

    The strain of bacteria causes an estimated 73,000 infections and 61 deaths in the United States each year, according to government data. It is destroyed when meat is cooked to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

    The White House on Monday proposed an $899 million budget for food safety, hoping to repair its image after a series of massive meat recalls last year. The proposal includes funding to increase the number of meat inspectors to 7,680 and double the number of E. coli tests at ground beef plants.

    USDA said about $18 million would be used to establish the Office of Food Security and Emergency Preparedness. It will coordinate with the Homeland Security Department and other federal agencies to prevent deliberate attacks against the U.S. food supply.

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