Chances are higher than they were just a few years ago that the chicken available in stores will be contaminated with the bacteria salmonella. However, currently the government lacks the authority to do much about the situation.

Critics of government policy say there is a link between the lack of government action and the 80 percent increase in the number of chickens contaminated with salmonella since 2000. Richard Raymond, the Undersecretary of Agriculture for food safety, will testify before Congress today on annual administration appropriations. He expects to be asked about the agency’s proposed new initiative to reduce salmonella in chicken.

In the 1990’s, the Agriculture Department established standards to reduce the levels of salmonella in meat and poultry. If companies failed to meet the standards, they could be closed.

Initially there was a drop in the number of chickens contaminated with salmonella. But the first time the agency tried to close a plant because of persistently high levels of salmonella in its ground beef, the company sued, charging that the agency had no authority. The judge agreed with the company. His decision was upheld on appeal in 2001. Suddenly an incentive for companies to reduce contamination levels was eliminated.

In 1994 the Department of Agriculture declared E. coli 0157:H7 a virulently harmful bacteria, an "adulterant," which means any raw product contaminated with it is subject to recall. If the company does not voluntarily recall the product, the agency can seize it. Faced with serious financial consequences, the beef industry successfully instituted a number of procedures to rid its meat of this form of E. coli. A byproduct of this cleanup has been a drop in the levels of salmonella in beef.

Chicken processors currently have no such motivation.

In the last month, the Agriculture Department has announced a more concentrated testing program that it hopes will bring down levels of salmonella.