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Donley says that about half the cattle that come in for slaughter have some exposure to E. coli, and that ground meat samples tested by the federal government are turning up higher amounts of bacteria than before -- although this may be because of better testing.

"The slaughterhouse market is relatively unchanged since Sinclair Lewis wrote The Jungle," says Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who has represented victims of some of the most notorious food poisoning cases of the last decade, including the Jack in the Box and Odwalla cases. He holds this opinion despite the fact that some plants have adopted new Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) quality-control procedures to keep contamination down.

"The concept is great," Marler says. "You look at those particular areas with the potential for contamination and focus on it and deal with it. In reality, it still takes a commitment by the company." Still, he adds, "I think you have got to have oversight in addition to HACCP. You can't let your own industry regulate itself."

But others say the U.S. food supply has gotten safer. "I think we've come a long way, in part because of educational initiatives, educating the public, and steps the government has taken," says Kathleen Zellman, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "We're safer than we were a year ago; we're safer than we were five years ago. ... The federal government is doing the job to keep the food supply safe."

The nation's slaughterhouses have done a good job driving down levels of salmonella, one food safety expert says, but there isn't enough evidence to show the same is true for E. coli.

Mike Doyle, PhD, director of the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety and Quality Enhancement, in Griffin, says some facilities are now steam-cleaning carcasses during processing to help get rid of contamination, but that cows almost invariably come into the plant dirty. "The hooker is, we're not going to be eliminating everything," he says.

And that's where the consumer comes in. Proper cooking is of key importance, but it's not the only thing. Raw meat should be handled very carefully, all the way from the grocery story to the plate. "One of the problems we have when you're talking about grilling is, consumers will cook the hamburger well and then put it back on the plate with the [raw] contaminated juices," Doyle says.

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