WASHINGTON -- President Clinton announced steps Saturday to reduce outbreaks of a deadly foodborne pathogen, including a requirement that processors systematically test their plants for the listeria bacterium.
Clinton said he wants to cut the rate of listeria illnesses in half by 2005, five years earlier than the administration's current goal.
''While our administration has already taken a number of important steps to reduce the threat of listeria, it's clear we must do more to protect Americans,'' the president said in his weekly radio address.
Listeria monocytogenes is estimated to sicken 2,500 Americans a year and kill 500 of them. Experts estimate one-third of those cases involve pregnant women and their babies.
An outbreak of listeria poisoning in 1998 that killed 15 people and sickened at least 100 others was traced to meat processed at a Sara Lee Corp. plant in Michigan. Some 15 million pounds of hot dogs and lunch meats were eventually recalled by the company.
Under rules that the Agriculture Department expects to propose in three months, processors will be required to test for the bacterium on equipment, floors and other areas around the plant to prevent it from getting on meat products.
Many plants already conduct such testing, but they are not required to do so.
There is no requirement for plants to test the food itself for the bacterium and USDA officials say they don't plan to order that.
Clinton's announcement comes a year after the department ordered plants to revamp their processing methods to prevent listeria contamination.
Listeria causes flu-like symptoms in most healthy people, but it can be serious in the young, old or weak. In pregnant women, the bacterium can cause miscarriage or stillbirth even if the mother feels no symptoms.
Listeria can be found in hot dogs, deli meats, soft cheese like Brie or feta, unpasteurized milk products and undercooked meat, poultry or seafood.
Seven food industry organizations said in a joint statement that a recent survey found that more than 90 percent of processed meat and poultry plants already use microbiological tests to help control listeria, complementing more than 7,500 tests performed annually by the federal government.
The industry also is researching new technologies to prevent the formation of listeria, including pasteurization.
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