Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) detailed new, more stringent standards for ground beef purchased for the the National School Lunch Program in the wake of a December 2009 USA Today investigation found the USDA’s purchasing program was not on par with major fast food chains like Jack in the Box and KFC. The paper reported that the federal government purchased and served millions of pounds of beef and chicken that wouldn’t meet the safety and quality standards of major commercial buyers.

school-lunch-burger1-featured.jpgThe USDA responded by launching a new school lunch food safety initiative that maintains the agency’s zero tolerance policy for E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella, increases the sampling and testing frequency for finished product, and institutes stricter standards for source trimmings used in ground beef purchased by the Agriculture Marketing Service, the arm of the agency charged with sourcing food for federal nutrition programs.

“The new standards…ensure our purchases are in line with major private-sector buyers of ground beef and are part of our continued effort to employ the best scientific knowledge to increase the safety of our nutritional programs,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack after the policy details were released in mid-May.

USA Today hailed the move. “The changes put the school lunch program back in the forefront of safety practices, a place it once held a decade ago,” wrote reporter Elizabeth Weise, who co-wrote the December beef safety expose.

Dave Theno, who built Jack in the Box’s strict and widely-respected food safety program from the ground up after the 1993 E. coli O157 tragedies on the West Coast, also praised the initiative. “I’d make the case that the school lunch standards will now be above some of our major retail grocery chains. Not all, but some. They’ll be up there with the best,” Theno told USA Today.

By most accounts the new policy is a move in the right direction, but some critics say serious questions remain.

“Not a lot of details here,” said Donna Rosenbaum, executive director of Safe Tables Our Priority (S.T.O.P.), a foodborne illness victims advocacy organization, of the initial announcement. “What we’ve always said when it comes to USDA: the devil is in the details.”

“Any regulatory program that increases oversight over microbial testing is good,” said Rosenbaum. “But, if, for example, you’re not looking for non-O157 E. coli, you’re not doing your job.”

“We’d like to see them kick it up a notch,” she added.

Richard Raymond, former under secretary for food safety at USDA and a regular blogger on food safety policy, sharply criticized the new policy as “feel good fluff” and characterized the announcement as “chest thumping” for the Secretary.

“[I]f the ground beef they were purchasing, which already had tighter specs than what I purchase at the [supermarket], was exceedingly dangerous, then why not tighten the specs for all ground beef?” asked Raymond, in an email to Food Safety News after the announcement. “The kids that eat a lunch provided by the [National School Lunch Program] only do that 5 days a week, 9 months a year. They eat more ground beef in their homes, at their church lunches, at picnics and in restaurants than they eat in the schools.”

“If the Secretary thinks the current specs for the [National School Lunch Program] do not provide adequate protection, then why is he not worrying about you and me and my grandkids who are not old enough to go to school yet, but eat ground beef?” asked Raymond. “If we must do better, then make it for all ground beef.”

The new standards only apply to Agriculture Marketing Service-purchased beef–which serves federal nutrition programs beyond the National School Lunch Program. Schools and school districts can still purchase beef in the commercial market to supplement their supply. As Food Safety News reported in February, two school districts in California served beef that was later recalled for E. coli O157:H7 contamination. The recalled meat was purchased in the commercial market.

The new Agriculture Marketing Service purchasing requirements go into effect July 1. According to the agency, the National Academies of Sciences is also continuing its review of ground beef purchase requirements. When complete, the National Academies of Sciences will provide a recommendation for Agriculture Marketing Service on evaluating the agency’s program against “industry recognized best practices.”