The US Senate is expected to vote before the end of September – possibly as soon as this week – on legislation giving the US Department of Agriculture authority to shut down a meat or poultry processor who fails consistently to meet the government’s standards for pathogens such as Salmonella. The proposal has been introduced by US Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee. His chief of staff said Harkin would likely offer the language as an amendment to the annual bill appropriating money for USDA.

Harkin first proposed the language in legislation last year after a federal court ruled USDA lacked authority to withdraw its inspection force from the plant operated by Supreme Beef in Fort Worth, Texas after it exceeded the Salmonella content standard on three consecutive occasions. The action effectively would close a plant because it could not sell meat without USDA-approved inspection. Supreme Beef, which challenged USDA’s authority in court, subsequently went bankrupt but the meat processing industry has continued the court appeal. Lawyers are scheduled to present arguments to the appeals court in October.

Harkin’s proposal, to allow USDA to enforce microbial contamination limits, failed to pass last year by a one-vote margin but Congress directed the National Academy of Science and a USDA advisory committee on microbiological content in food to determine whether Salmonella is an appropriate indicator of food safety. This year, the food industry has renewed its vigorous lobbying effort to defeat the legislation, urging senators to await the scientific studies before taking action.

The National Food Processors Association, American Meat Institute and National Meat Association have all maintained the existing standards were not based on science. USDA created standards for beef, pork and poultry in 1996 based on measurement of the content of Salmonella in each product. Using the existing standards could cause USDA to close even the most modern processing plants, said NFPA vice president John Keeling, and would remove USDA’s discretion in deciding whether to withdraw inspection. A senior Agriculture Committee staff member said, however, the Harkin plan would leave USDA free to amend the standards if it felt them inadequate.

NFPA’s executive vice president Kelly Johnston said his industry supported continuing the use of performance standards with a scientific basis but opposed reliance on such standards as an enforcement tool. He said the existing standards were inadequate because they did not account for the wide seasonal and geographical variations in the levels of pathogens in livestock and poultry delivered to slaughter facilities.