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Poultry rules delayed

The Agriculture Department has dropped proposed new rules for reducing bacterial contamination in chickens and turkeys, officials confirmed Tuesday.

Instead, the department will fold some elements of the proposal into a separate one, promised later this year, that would change the way all kinds of meat are inspected for safety.

The move is politically sensitive because Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, under investigation for alleged favors from Tyson Foods, has been accused of favoring poultry over beef when cracking down on bacterial contamination. He has submitted his resignation.

The poultry proposal was criticized by the broiler industry and consumer groups when it was outlined in July. Some said the proposal kept the worst elements of an antiquated inspection system and should be scrapped.

A key goal of the poultry proposal was to apply to poultry the same rigid standard that since March 1993 has allowed no fecal contamination on beef carcasses. Feces can carry dangerous bacteria such as E. coli O157:H7 in beef, and salmonella in chicken.

No Agriculture Department official was available Tuesday to comment on the action, except to say that food safety would not be compromised.

"There's no consideration being given to backing off on zero tolerance," said Jacque Knight, an agency spokeswoman.