US Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin said on Friday that a series of massive food recalls in the US this summer underscored the need to reform a "broken" federal food safety system.
ConAgra Foods, Smithfield Foods and most recently privately-held Cargill have all recalled some beef products because of concerns they may be tainted with a potentially deadly bacteria.
"These repeated meat recalls are clear evidence that our food safety system is broken," the Iowa Democrat said in a statement.
Harkin is expected to hold committee hearings on the issue when Congress returns after the November elections. The senator faces a tough re-election bid against Iowa Representative Greg Ganske, a Republican.
"There must be reforms, and I repeat my call on USDA and the administration to get on board so we can fix this system," he said.
USDA officials were not immediately available for comment.
Harkin has sought giving the US Department of Agriculture broader authority to enforce food safety regulations. This includes the power to slap companies that make unsafe food with civil fines, and the authority to recall food suspected of contamination. Currently, the USDA can only urge a company to do so or threaten to pull federal meat inspectors out of a plant that refuses to co-operate.
The Bush administration said it does not need the additional authority. It has instead toughened its enforcement of food safety regulations at meat plants.
The USDA on Thursday shut a Cargill beef plant in Wisconsin that was linked to an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 that has sickened at least 57 people. The company recalled nearly three million pounds of ground beef due to the outbreak.
In July, ConAgra launched the second-largest beef recall, withdrawing nearly 19 million pounds due to E. coli concerns. Last month, a Smithfield plant in Pennsylvania recalled more than 200,000 pounds of ground beef.