The Department of Agriculture has unveiled labels with cooking and handling instructions that all raw meat and poultry will carry by the middle of October.
The labels were introduced yesterday by Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, who said they were part of an effort "to reinvent and rethink every aspect of meat inspection." The present system has been criticized for years because of its inability to prevent tainted meat from reaching consumers.
The labels state that some meats may contain bacteria and explain the need for keeping meat refrigerated or frozen. The labels also emphasize the importance of keeping raw meat separate from other foods and the need to cook meat thoroughly.
Such care and handling labels have been considered for several years but have never been required. The issue was joined by the Agriculture Department after three people died and more than 350 others were sickened in January as a result of bacteria-tainted hamburgers from a fast-food chain in Washington State. Mr. Espy took office the same week the outbreak of the bacteria, E.coli 0157:H7, was reported.
The labeling comes in response to a suit brought jointly by the parents of a child who died and a consumer group, Beyond Beef. Jeremy Rifkin, president of Beyond Beef, which wants to reduce beef consumption and ensure that what is available is raised organically, said he was not entirely pleased with the wording of the labels.
"It's a good beginning," Mr. Rifkin said, "but the label needs to say more than 'cook thoroughly.' It has to say 'cook until no longer pink -- 155 to 160 degrees.' Otherwise we'll take them back to court."
In a telephone interview, Mr. Espy said: "Mr. Rifkin sued us to do something we said we would do anyway. The name of his group suggests the agenda. But I'm sure people will eat beef, and I want to make sure the meat is healthy and wholesome."
Carol Tucker Foreman, an assistant secretary of agriculture in the Carter administration who has long advocated labeling for meat and poultry, praised the plan, but she said she was concerned about the cooking instructions on the labels.
"I think there is some wording that could be refined," said Ms. Foreman, now a consultant in Washington. "One of the things that has to be worked out is the way to cook chicken and ground beef and whole pieces of meat. But our key concern was would they include a 'why statement,' " a reference to the warning about bacterial contamination.
"If you don't tell people why they should do something," she added, "they are unlikely to do it."