"This new process will take what I believe is already a very safe food supply and make it safer," said Agriculture Undersecretary Richard Raymond.
The proposal would change the way the nation's favorite foods get inspected — processed meats like hamburgers, hot dogs, deli cuts and sandwich meat, reports CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews.
The idea — beginning in April — is to have USDA inspectors spend much more time examining processing plants that have the worst food safety records, and much less at plants that pose little or no risk.
The new policy, announced Thursday, is designed to increase scrutiny of processing plants where the threat of E. coli and other germs is high or where past visits have found unsafe practices. Plants with fewer risks and better food-handling records will be inspected less often.
Also taken into consideration will be the inherent safety of the food the plant processes.
"A smoked canned ham, for instance, has almost zero risk that you can get sick from eating it when you eat it right out of the can," Raymond said.
The Agriculture Department proposes switching to the new system at about 250 locations, or about 5 percent of the nation's estimated 5,300 processing plants.
"We will do this for a long time in these locations until we've had a chance to evaluate how well it's going, where the bumps in the road might be, what we might need to do differently and how training needs to change," said Raymond, the Agriculture Department's top food safety official.
As many as 1,200 plants might be part of the new system by Jan. 1.
Food safety critics weren't pleased. Carol Tucker Foreman, director of food policy for Consumer Federation of America, called the policy reckless and illegal. She said the new policy was the result of the White House's desire to reduce spending and "will almost surely result in more illnesses and more deaths from food poisoning."
Raymond said the changes were not money-driven, and that the goal was to reduce illness from food poisoning.
Other critics say the idea has merit, but they fear the department is rushing a complex new system into place. The new system will start before officials have finished ranking the levels of risk posed by various meat products.
"Moving too quickly, before they have fully analyzed the risk of different products, could start the program in the wrong direction," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Raymond said he thinks the timeline will reassure those who want change to happen gradually.
To decide the level of scrutiny a plant should get, the "risk-based" system will consider the type of product and a plant's size and record of food safety violations.
A plant that makes hamburger and has repeated violations would get more inspections. A plant that makes cooked, canned ham and has a clean track record would get less scrutiny.
Last fall, an Iowa company distributed from seven states because they might have been contaminated with a dangerous strain of E. coli. In early August, a Tennessee company recalled some 4,300 pounds of ground beef, also because of possible E. coli contamination.
Daily inspections of the plants are required under federal law and would continue, and the changes would apply only to processing plants and not to slaughter plants.
About 76 million people get sick from food poisoning each year in the United States. Around 325,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 die each year because of food-borne diseases.
E. coli lives in the intestines of cattle and other animals and typically is linked to contamination by fecal material. It's believed responsible for about 60 deaths and 73,000 infections a year in the United States. The potentially deadly strain can cause bloody diarrhea and dehydration.