The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced last week a number of new initiatives to improve the safety and quality of food purchased for the National School Lunch Program and other federal nutrition assistance programs.

The agency announced that it will implement new food safety purchasing requirements for its beef suppliers and it has asked the National Academies of Science (NAS) to review the entire ground beef purchasing program, amongst a series of other changes.

The announcement comes in the wake of increased national attention to school lunch safety after a series of USA Today exposes found major gaps in the current system.  A recent New York Times article also questioned the efficacy and safety of an ammonia processing technique in used in ground beef widely purchased by the school lunch program.

“Nothing is more important than the health and well-being of our Nation’s school children,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, in a statement last week.

“We must do everything we can to ensure that our kids are being served safe, high quality foods at school. Today’s announcement demonstrates our commitment to constantly improving the safety and quality of foods purchased by USDA,” added Vilsack.

The initiatives announced by the USDA will be implemented by agencies within the department: the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS).

AMS will execute the new food safety purchasing requirements, which will continue to have a zero tolerance policy for Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7 in coordination with FSIS and ARS agencies.

In its scientific review, NAS is charged with reviewing the AMS purchasing requirements as well as benchmarking the requirements against leading food industry standards. The review comes after the agency came under fire after one USDA Today investigation found that the leading fast food chains had more stringent safety standards than the National School Lunch Program.

The USDA  also announced it will be establishing a Center of Excellence devoted to research on food safety issues in FNS child nutrition programs and FNS will be reviewing and evaluating the communication between state agencies and school districts regarding product recalls, responding to another concern USA Today highlighted in its school lunch investigation series.