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The courts agreed. In 2001, a federal appeals court upheld a lower court's decision accepting the company's argument that, because salmonella is naturally occurring, the government cannot close a plant due to salmonella contamination.

Elsa Murano, USDA's undersecretary for food safety at the time, told News21 that the agency still has the power to close plants for failing to follow their own food safety plans, and she said that salmonella testing is just one indicator the agency uses to measure companies' performance.

Efforts in Congress to give the performance standards teeth have stagnated.

Following the court decision, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) introduced legislation to give USDA the legal authority to shut down plants that repeatedly violate performance standards. Senate Republicans voted as a bloc to kill it, joined by two Democrats.

Harkin then made repeated efforts to advance legislation known as Kevin's Law - in memory of a Colorado toddler who died in 2001 after eating a hamburger contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 - but the measures never got out of committee. Similar bills on the House side sputtered as well.