WASHINGTON - The government will require companies that churn out hot dogs and cold cuts to test their plants for the deadly listeria bacterium, President Clinton announced Saturday. The goal is to reduce Listeria-caused illnesses by one-half over five years.
While poisoning fewer people than pathogens such as salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes are estimated to kill 500 Americans a year and sicken 2,000 more. A third of the cases involve pregnant women and their babies, experts say.
The plan is one of a series of food safety initiatives the administration has promoted recently, from eggs to genetically altered foods, as Clinton apparently seeks to burnish his legacy as consumer protector. The proposals may not take effect until after Clinton leaves office in January and still could be blocked by Congress.
Chiding lawmakers for not going along so far with the egg safety plan, Clinton said, ''We should be doing more, not less, to ensure the safety of our food.''
Under the Listeria rules the Agriculture Department expects to propose in four months, processors will have to test for Listeria monocytogenes and related bacteria on equipment, floors and other areas around their plants. The tests are designed to warn of sanitation problems that could lead to meat contamination.
Many companies already test on their own. They do not have to share the results with the government and have no government guidelines for what must be done when listeria bacteria are found.
USDA officials say they do not plan to require systematic testing of meat products themselves, a measure consumer advocates contend would provide an extra check on plant processes. Department inspectors now test small numbers of samples for Listeria.
In 1998, 2.5 percent of 3,547 samples checked nationwide tested positive for the bacterium.
''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,'' Clinton said in Saturday's weekly radio address.
In addition to the testing requirement, the administration will consider requiring new labeling for packaged meats to warn consumers about Listeria.
The administration's plan is a ''great leap forward'' for consumers, said Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. ''It is the first time the processed meat industry has been required to check for bacteria.''
An outbreak of Listeria poisoning in 1998 killed 15 people and sickened at least 100 and was traced to meat processed at a Sara Lee Corp. plant in Michigan. The company recalled 15 million pounds of hot dogs and lunch meats, and the Agriculture Department ordered plants nationwide to revamp their processing methods to prevent listeria contamination.
Clinton's goal is realistic, but ''there is a lot to be done between now and there in figuring out how we get there,'' said Dane Bernard, vice president of the National Food Processors Association.
''Government data show that (Listeria) has declined in ready-to-eat meat and poultry products, proving that industry and government are taking the right steps to address this problem,'' Bernard said.
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 tests already performed by federal inspectors.
The industry also is researching new technologies to prevent formation of Listeria, including pasteurization and ingredients and packaging that retard pathogen growth, said Jim Hodges, president of the American Meat Institute Foundation.
''Testing for pathogens can be helpful,'' Hodges said. ''But testing doesn't kill pathogens - technology does.''
Listeria can be found in hot dogs, delicatessen meats, soft cheeses like Brie or feta, unpasteurized milk products and undercooked meat, poultry or seafood.
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. Pregnant women are advised to reheat ready-to-eat foods, including cold cuts, and avoid soft cheeses.