The government is tightening scrutiny of companies that process beef, pork and poultry for deli meats and hot dogs but don't test countertops, equipment and other parts of their plants for listeria.
The new crackdown is in response to a bad outbreak of listeria in the Northeast and in New England states this summer that killed seven people and sickened another 52, a more recent incident that led to a massive recall of lunch meats, reports CBS News Correspondent Bob Fuss.
"What inspectors will do is this intensified testing — environmental testing — in those plants that do not do their own environmental testing or that don't share their data with us," said Dr. Elsa Murano, USDA undersecretary for food safety.
Under the directive, inspectors will be doing more intensive testing of countertops, processing equipment and other surfaces in the meat processing plants. Current rules require the meat to be tested, but not the surfaces it touches. Plants that do their own testing will have to tell the government what they find, something they haven't been required to do up to now.
Until now, the government has required meat processors to test their products for presence of the pathogen but not their plants and equipment. Those plants that did do such environmental testing did not have to share the results with federal inspectors.
Listeria often produces fever, other influenza-like symptoms and diarrhea and is particularly dangerous to pregnant women, the elderly and people with weak immune systems.
Identical strains of the listeria bacterium responsible for the outbreaks were found in the floor drains in a Wampler Foods plant in Fanconia, Pa., and later in a sample of deli meat produced at a J.L. Foods poultry plant in New Jersey.
Wampler recalled more than 27 million pounds of meat last month after the listeria was found in its plant and J.L. Foods announced a recall of 200,000 pounds of ready-to-eat chicken and turkey. Both plants reopened last week after getting a clean bill of health from the government.
Murano said requiring plants to share their environmental test information will enable investigators to trace the sources of listeria outbreaks quicker than has been done in the past.
"It's good that the plants are testing," said Carolyn Smith-DeWaal, director of food safety for Center for Science and the Public Interest. "But it's not enough if they don't share the results and take proper corrective action."
The National Food Processors Association said the changes will make testing programs more effective but added that the government needs to complete risk assessment analyses for linking listeria found on the floor or wall of a plant to public outbreaks of the disease.
"We still think that there is science that needs to be done." said Timothy Willard, a spokesman for the industry trade group.
While environmental testing "can help give you important information to help prevent problems down the road...what it doesn't tell you is that you have a problem with an end product," he said. "It's not a determination that a plant is producing unsafe product."
Murano, however, said the Agriculture Department will continue to use tests from listeria testing of plants and equipment to order recalls.