President Clinton has announced an aggressive new strategy to significantly reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses caused by listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat foods such as hot dogs and lunch meats.

Clinton administration targets listeria.

The president directed the UDSA to complete proposed regulations that include any appropriate microbiological testing and other measures by industries to prevent cross-contamination in the processing environment; ensure the processing of ready-to-eat products meets appropriate standards; and that such products are safe throughout their shelf life. In addition, Clinton has directed the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to develop an action plan identifying further steps to eliminate listeria contamination, including identification of control measures for at-risk foods and the publication of guidance to processors, retailers and foodservice facilities. Finally, both USDA and HHS will consider the need for enhanced labeling to provide additional consumer safeguards.

The administration's goal is to cut in half the number of listeria-related illnesses by 2010 (from .50 cases per 100,000 to .25 cases). In a radio address to the nation, President Clinton said, "Fortunately, listeria is less common than salmonella, E. coli and other food-borne bacteria. But unfortunately, it is far more dangerous. A staggering 20 percent of listeria infections result in death." He added that forthcoming regulations would "require scientific approaches, such as systematic testing for listeria at food processing plants -- not just random checks."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), foodborne listeriosis has particularly high fatality rates for newborns, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems.

In a related development, Clinton urged Congress to appropriate $68 million for his food safety initiative, which, among other things, would enable the FDA to expand the number of inspections of imported and certain domestic foods. The president also called on Congress to support two pieces of food safety legislation. One bill ensures that imports of fruits, vegetables and other food products meet U.S. food safety requirements. The other gives USDA authority to issue mandatory recalls and impose civil penalties for unsafe meat and poultry.