The bruising battle over beef continues to rage at the USDA.

For several months, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been sparring with a Texas meat processing plant, Supreme Beef, that failed agency tests for salmonella three times in a row over a period of eight months. Following the third failure, the USDA moved to shut the plant down.

Supreme Beef, however, took the matter to court. In early December, U.S. District Judge A. Joseph Fish blocked the closing pending a trial, saying the USDA might have overstepped its regulatory authority.

Now officials within the USDA are crafting a legal strategy for dealing with the issue in light of the fact that, following Fish's ruling, Supreme Beef recalled some 180,000 pounds of meat that the USDA said might carry the E. coli bacteria.

In his original ruling, Fish said there was no evidence that any of Supreme Beef's products were actually contaminated, a position the USDA may be able to challenge based on the E. coli incident.

The ultimate outcome of the beef squabble is of no small importance to USDA officials. If the agency is found to have exceeded its authority, its new meat-testing procedure, implemented in 1995 to replace the old poke-and-sniff approach, could be called into question.

Wanted: Money for Farms

Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman yesterday laid out in broad brush strokes what his agency's budget request for fiscal 2001 may look like when President Clinton sends it to Capitol Hill next month.

The budget will include a request for an extra $1.3 billion for farm conservation programs intended to assist farmers hit hard by record-low commodity prices.

Talking to reporters, Glickman wouldn't give any specifics but said he would make good on his promise to move beyond emergency budget requests and submit legislation this year to overhaul the Freedom to Farm Act, passed in 1996 by Republicans intent on wiping out many of the subsidies paid to farmers each year.

Since then, however, Congress has regularly passed emergency spending bills to bail out struggling farmers hit by drops in market prices and buffeted by natural disasters. The government handed out $15 billion in emergency money over the last two years alone.

"I want to help our farmers over the long term, not just year to year," Glickman said. "In 2000, I will work with Congress to seek significant changes to the 1996 farm bill, strengthening the safety net and increasing conservation initiatives."

Substituting Soy in Schools

The veggie burger may finally have its day.

The USDA is expected to issue a final ruling, probably within the next two months, on whether to allow schools to use the soybean-based burgers--instead of traditional ground beef patties--in federally subsidized lunches.

The agency began considering the move last year as a way to reduce the fat content in student meals. But clearing the way for using soy as a meat substitute requires the agency to eliminate its previous regulation that soy products be used only as food additives in amounts of less than 30 percent.

It's not the first time the agency has flirted with the veggie burger. The Reagan administration tried it as a budget-cutting move in the early 1980s at the same time it tried to have ketchup declared a vegetable in school lunches. The administration backed off after a stinging public backlash against what seemed like Draconian cuts that would hurt children.

Agency officials said this time when they put the proposal to eliminate the regulation on soy content out for public comment, they got mainly positive responses.