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JAPAN ADOPTS BACTERIA-PROOF MEAT STANDARD

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Japan's deadly food poisoning scare has driven health authorities to raise meat sanitation standards as high as those of the U.S. space program, officials said Wednesday.

The Health Ministry hopes that raising slaughterhouse practices to space-age standards will safeguard consumers from infection by the O157 colon bacillus bacteria responsible for a poisoning outbreak that has killed nine people and made 9,500 ill over the past two months.The revision of the Food Sanitation Law, to be implemented next month, would require 333 slaughterhouses nationwide to use bacteria-proof methods of butchering carcasses, officials of a ministry study panel said.

The slaughterhouses would also have to inspect for bacteria at every stage of meatcutting, separate intestines and organs from flesh, and maintain detailed records to enable quick follow-up in case of food poisoning outbreaks.

The O-157 colon bacillus has been detected in about 0.2 percent of the livestock examined in a previous ministry inspection, the officals said.

Current sanitary practice at slaughterhouses focuses on eliminating diseased animals, not on preventing the infection of humans, analysts said.

The move, which brings forward the ministry's plan to impose stringent meat-packing rules modeled on those in the United States, comes after a frantic but inconclusive search for clues to the poisoning outbreak that has wreaked havoc in the food industry.

On Wednesday, radish sprouts joined the growing list of food items first blamed for causing the epidemic and then cleared of responsibility.

Since the start of the outbreak, raw fish, liver, chicken, noodles and a variety of sweets have all been blamed and then exonerated - but not before causing sales of the items to plummet.

Health officials in Osaka in western Japan, where the epidemic has hit hardest, told reporters the radish sprouts were cleared after exhaustive tests on the vegetable and the farm's water supply and its employees.

Last week, the Health Ministry said radish sprouts were the only common link found in meals served at Osaka-area primary schools and a retirement home where there were many victims.

The vegetable, a common salad garnish similar to cress, was the only uncooked food served to people at the locations.

Chief government spokesman Seiroku Kajiyama on Wednesday also gave the sprouts a clean bill of health.

"It's just that the possibility of contamination existed in radish sprouts from a single producer, but that didn't mean all radish sprouts were unsafe," Kajiyama told reporters.

Some supermarkets that stopped selling radish sprouts after last week's announcement said they would resume sales of the popular vegetable on Thursday now it has been cleared.