SHOULD A federal district court judge in Texas be able to order a meat processing plant to stay open despite federal regulators' judgment that its meat shows unacceptably high levels of contamination with salmonella bacteria? That's the question facing regulators--and the courts--following a decision by Judge A. Joseph Fish in Dallas. Judge Fish blocked the U.S. Department of Agriculture from withdrawing its meat inspectors from a plant, the Supreme Beef Co., that had failed three safety tests for salmonella in eight months, a step that would essentially have closed the plant down. The company, which until recently supplied ground beef for federal school lunch programs, was the first to fail three times under new food safety standards in effect since 1995, when older methods of testing meat by touch and smell were replaced by a more scientific analysis designed to detect contamination by microbes.

The company sued after negotiations with the Agriculture Department broke down, charging that the government has no legal authority to use a salmonella standard because salmonella does not constitute a health hazard. The department responds, first, that salmonella is indeed dangerous--though the danger can be eliminated by proper cooking--and, second, that the new food safety standard, with its analytic approach, uses salmonella incidence as an indicator of microbial safety standards generally. It adds that all the companies tested before Supreme Beef were able to meet the standard, though two more--including Supreme Beef's own slaughterhouse--have failed it since.

The core questions here are not legal but scientific, manifestly not suited to resolution in a courtroom. It took the Department of Agriculture 15 years after a National Academy of Sciences report to convince Congress that the then 90-year-old system of meat safety inspection by sight and smell--the so-called "poke and sniff"--was unequal to the task of detecting dangerous microbes. The new system requires plants to figure out the likely points of contamination and test for microbes at those points. Does the meat industry, which supports Supreme Beef's suit, truly think it a sensible battle to pursue the legal right to distribute beef with more salmonella bacteria than the government deems safe? The victory might prove costly.