WASHINGTON (AP) _ A group of food safety experts wants the federal government to expand its proposal to allow meat irradiation to include ready-to-eat products like hot dogs and luncheon meats.

The current Agriculture Department proposal would permit _ but not require _ irradiation only for refrigerated or frozen uncooked meat.

``There is a clear benefit for irradiation of ready-to-eat meat products,'' said Dennis Olson, director of the Utilization Center for Agricultural Products at Iowa State University, citing the numerous recalls of contaminated ready-to-eat products.

Olson is part of the Food Safety Consortium, established by Congress in 1988 at the University of Arkansas, Iowa State University and Kansas State University to investigate meat and food safety.

Several companies have been forced to recall their luncheon meats and hot dogs in recent months due to possible contamination by Listeria monocytogenes bacteria. In December, Zeeland, Mich.-based Bil Mar Foods had to recall 15 million pounds of hot dogs and lunch meats after Listeria-contaminated products from the plant were linked to 100 illnesses in 22 states, as well as 15 deaths and six miscarriages or stillbirths.

``Irradiating those products may have helped prevent illnesses associated with some of those products,'' Olson said.

Olson and others representing the consortium said irradiation would provide ``an additional layer of safety'' for precooked foods.

During irradiation, low-level doses of gamma rays or electron beam irradiation are administered to kill bacteria.

USDA is accepting public comment on the proposal before issuing its final rule.

``We can no longer ignore the food safety benefits irradiation provides,'' said Dr. Richard Hunter, deputy state health officer for the Florida Department of Health. ``The federal government needs to be more active and dedicate more resources to educating the public about the benefits and safety of irradiation.''

The National Food Processors Association is preparing to petition the federal government to expand the proposed irradiation rule to include precooked meats, said spokesman Tim Willard.