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WASHINGTON - Government inspectors will continue testing meat processors for salmonella bacteria, despite last week's court ruling that the test results aren't enough to close a plant, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said Tuesday, The Associated Press reports.

"We will increase our vigilance in meat plants to ensure compliance and the safety of our food supply," Veneman said.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that salmonella alone doesn't make meat unsafe and said plants could not be required to meet limits for the bacteria. Veneman said USDA will use the tests to tell whether a plant's sanitation systems are working properly.

If a plant fails two sets of tests for salmonella, USDA will immediately investigate the plant's operations, and the facility would be closed if it fails to fix deficiencies, she said. The department also plans to review its training of inspectors.

"This ruling does not impair our ability to close plants that do not meet the statutory and regulatory requirements of the law for processing meat and poultry," said Veneman. "We can and will shut down plants that do not meet that responsibility."

The AP reports that Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute, said the court case "blew a huge hole in public protection" and Veneman is trying to "patch that gaping hole with Band-Aids."

Three groups representing meat processors - the American Meat Institute, National Food Processors Association and the National Turkey Federation - issued a joint statement praising USDA's response to the court ruling.

The department "retains strong authority to take action to ensure that industry is fulfilling its responsibility to produce safe meat and poultry," the statement said.
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