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A deadly outbreak of E. coli food poisoning that killed three people and sickened more than 500 others in Washington state in January brought panicky calls for overhauling the nation's meat inspection system, even though the bacterial infection causing the poisoning can easily be prevented by properly cooking meat.

An area supervisor for the Food Safety and Inspection Service - without waiting for higher-up U.S. Agricultural Department action - responded to public fears and jumped the gun by issuing inspection guidelines earlier this month to tighten inspections at plants in the Midwest.The rules lasted only for a few days because the guidelines caused serious slowdowns at meat plants in several states. The new procedures were withdrawn after the beef industry complained.

A more deliberate approach was unveiled this week by the Clinton administration. It calls for using more technology. Tests will be run to check for bacteria instead of just doing casual visual inspection. And 160 more federal meat inspectors will be hired this year.

Scientists and inspectors will be sent to farms and slaughterhouses to determine whether mass production methods increase the dangers of contamination. Tighter safety controls will be required at slaughterhouses and meat processing plants.

All of this invariably will slow down production, at least in the early going, and the beef industry is sure to protest again. But it is obvious that a more thorough and modernized inspection system is needed.

One effective way to kill bacteria in meat already exists - expose it to radiation. Irradiated meat causes no harm to consumers and has many advantages in providing healthier meat and less spoilage. But "radiation," no matter how benign, is one of those words that strike fear into the minds of consumers and may be hard to sell.

In the meantime, consumers can prevent problems with bacteria in meat by simply cooking it thoroughly. That's still the simplest and cheapest answer instead of relying on new government rules.