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Food safety system called into question

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KAI RYSSDAL: Eight Taco Bell restaurants in New York are set to reopen this afternoon. Health officials have apparently decided the threat of e-coli exposure has passed. Three dozen people became sick late last month after eating at the restaurants. Today, more food safety questions are being raised by a new study of store-bought chickens. Marketplace’s John Dimsdale has more.

JOHN DIMSDALE: Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, found more than 80 percent of the 525 chickens they bought at grocery stores around the country contained a bacteria called campylobacter. Campylobacter causes diarrhea in people and can be fatal in some cases. It’s not monitored by the Agriculture Department, which is responsible for the safety of the country’s meat and poultry.

JEAN HALLORAN: We’ve actually been testing chicken since 1998 and these are the worst results we’ve ever gotten.

Consumers Union’s Jean Halloran says the development of a mass food distribution system in the U.S. demands an overhaul of the government’s decentralized regulations.

HALLORAN: What we saw with spinach and what we may see with Taco Bell and with chicken is that when problems occur, they become a nationwide and massive problem very quickly. We need an updated food safety regulatory system that’s addressing these problems.

Government food safety experts say Consumers Union tested too few chickens to be credible. The Agriculture Department will develop its own larger test for campylobacter in chicken next year, says Dr. David Goldman in the Department’s food safety office.

DAVID GOLDMAN: So we will begin to generate our own data on campylobacter. And that will help us determine whether we need to change our approach to food safety with respect to chicken.

Camplyobacter, like salmonella, can be harmless to humans if the chicken is handled and cooked properly.

In Washington, I’m John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

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