WASHINGTON – The Agriculture Department on Thursday came out with new steps to fight fraud in food stamps, a federal program that has taken center stage as Congress struggles to adopt a long-term farm policy bill.

The actions announced by Agriculture Undersecretary Kevin Concannon include giving the department new authority to penalize retailers who traffic in food stamps and requiring states to make use of federal databases, including prison and death records, to ensure that food benefits go to those who are eligible.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has seen participation climb from 28 million at the start of the recession in 2008 to 46 million today. The department says food stamp fraud already is at record lows due to increased oversight, but is sensitive to abuse as Congress tries to pass a five-year farm bill that includes nearly $80 billion a year for food stamps.

The rate of trafficking or fraud is currently about 1 percent, Concannon said.