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Cooking, Not Testing Can Ensure School Beef Safety

The science isn’t there to back up more stringent testing of meat purchased through the federal government’s ground beef purchase program–which provides beef to the National School Lunch Program–according to a report released by the National Academy of Sciences.

The National Research Council report concluded that validated cooking processes would “provide greater assurance” than would additional testing for pathogens.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Marking Service (AMS) buys beef only from suppliers who must meet “mandatory process, quality, traceback, and handling controls as well as comply with strict limitations on the amounts of bacteria in the meat, such as E. coli and salmonella.  AMS then distributes the ground beef to federal programs, including food banks, emergency feeding programs, Indian reservations, and disaster relief agencies,” the report explains.

More testing, the report warned, could have unintended consequences by raising prices. “Under such circumstances, schools might decide to buy their ground beef on the open market at a lower cost,” noted the committee. (Ground beef purchased on the open market does not have to meet the same safety standards.)

An analysis of illnesses linked to AMS-purchased ground beef sent to schools showed that outbreaks are uncommon.

“The committee’s analysis of the number of illnesses since 1998 linked with AMS ground beef provided to schools suggests that outbreaks were rare events before AMS requirements became more stringent in February, implying that controls already in place were appropriate for protecting public health,” said a National Academy of Science release.  “For instance, no recorded outbreaks of E. coli or salmonella associated with AMS ground beef have occurred in more than a decade.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack responded positively to the committee’s findings.

“I am pleased that the committee concluded that USDA’s current ground beef specification requirements have been protective of public health over the past decade.  We are committed to improving the safety and quality of foods purchased by USDA and the efforts of the distinguished members of NRC’s committee that evaluated the food safety requirements are greatly appreciated,” said Vilsack.

“I requested this evaluation as part of several new initiatives implemented earlier this year to further assure the safety and quality of food purchased by USDA for the National School Lunch Program and other food and nutrition assistance programs.  The USDA will use NRC’s findings and recommendations as a roadmap to continue to strengthen its specification development processes.”

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