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"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.

Dietitian Chris Rosenbloom, PhD, RD, says other careless practices include serving the same batch of marinade used on raw meat as a sauce for the final product, using a dirty grill, and guessing at the meat's internal temperature: "People think, 'Oh well, I can look at the color of the meat'" to see if it's done, Rosenbloom says. "I think you can get into trouble that way."

Another way to get into trouble is letting anything that's supposed to be refrigerated sit out for longer than two hours. Rosenbloom, an associate professor of nutrition at Georgia State University, in Atlanta, says it's also a good idea to split deep-dish casseroles into smaller portions before refrigerating them. That way, they'll cool down faster.

But refrigeration is no guarantee of anything when it comes to food poisoning. Consider listeria, a bacterium that thrives in cold conditions. It can cause pregnant women to miscarry and others to develop meningitis, an infection of the tissues surrounding the brain and spinal cord.

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