The government proposed stricter inspection standards for poultry Monday in an effort to reduce the amount of disease-causing bacteria on the billions of birds Americans consume each year.
The new regulations impose a "zero tolerance" rule regarding fecal matter on any of the 7 billion chickens and 700 million turkeys processed annually in the United States.
Poultry feces may carry harmful bacteria such as salmonella, a major cause of food poisoning.
"This proposal is part of our ongoing efforts to use the best available science, in conjunction with good common sense, to improve the safety of our food supply," Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy said in a statement.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been criticized for not enforcing zero tolerance on poultry processors sooner. The rule has been enforced in beef inspections since three people died and hundreds of others became ill from eating contaminated hamburgers in the Pacific Northwest in 1993.
The new regulations require the reinspection of all chickens found to be contaminated, instead of just a sample. To carry this out, the positions of federal inspectors along the processing lines may be shifted. The inspectors will be given more authority to stop or slow the lines.
The rules also put more responsibility on plant operators, requiring that they sort the birds in advance and present only disease-free fowl.
Finally, the rules require that an antibacterial rinse be used on all carcasses.
The department estimates it will cost the poultry industry between $7 million and $10 million to make the changes.
The new standards will be published in the Federal Register on Wednesday for a 90-day period of public comment. Department officials predicted the rules will take effect late this year or early in 1995.
The proposals have already come under fire from consumer groups, who argue that inspection plans should focus on testing for bacteria rather than relying on visual scrutiny.
"The poultry you buy at the store may look a little better, but USDA offers no proof that, day in and day out, it will be less likely to make you sick," said Carol Tucker Foreman, who was assistant secretary of agriculture for food and consumer services under President Jimmy Carter.
"It may be heavily contaminated with bacteria that are not visible and can be detected only by scientific tests," she said.
Espy's press spokeswoman, Mary Dixon, told reporters, "One of the secretary's main priorities is to develop a rapid test for on-line use," but Foreman and other critics say the department already has the know-how to conduct such testing.