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FDA measures target food contamination

WASHINGTON -- The Food and Drug Administration Friday proposed the most sweeping food safety rules in decades, seeking to make food processors and farms more accountable for reducing foodborne illnesses that kill or sicken thousands of Americans annually.

The regulations are aimed at reducing the estimated 3,000 deaths a year from foodborne illness. Just since last summer, outbreaks of listeria in cheese and salmonella in peanut butter, mangoes and cantaloupe have been linked to more than 400 illnesses and as many as seven deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The FDA's proposed rules would require farmers to take new precautions against contamination, including making sure workers' hands are washed, irrigation water is clean, and that animals stay out of fields. Food manufacturers will have to submit food safety plans to the government to show they are keeping their operations clean.

Many food companies and farmers already follow such steps. But officials say the requirements could have saved lives and prevented illnesses in several of the large-scale outbreaks that have hit the country in recent years.

In a 2011 outbreak of listeria in cantaloupe that claimed 33 lives, for example, FDA inspectors found pools of dirty water on the floor and old, dirty processing equipment at Jensen Farms in Colorado.

In a peanut butter outbreak this year linked to 42 salmonella illnesses, inspectors found samples of salmonella throughout Sunland Inc.'s peanut processing plant in New Mexico.

Under the new rules, companies would have to lay out plans for preventing such health risks, monitor their own progress on those safety efforts and explain to the FDA how they would correct them.

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