The Government Accountability Office urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture to strengthen its oversight of the safety of food purchased for the federal school meal program in a report released this week. Among the top priorities laid out by GAO: Develop a systematic and transparent process in determining food safety policies for purchasing commodities.

The report found that for 7 of approximately 180 commodity foods purchased for federal nutrition programs, USDA has established food safety purchasing requirements that go above and beyond federal regulations for the same foods in the commercial food supply.

“For example, the commodity program will not purchase ground beef that tests positive for Salmonella bacteria, while federal regulations for commercially available ground beef tolerate the presence of a certain amount of Salmonella,” says GAO in the 32-page report. “Program officials told GAO that more-stringent specifications are needed for certain foods they purchase because they go to populations, such as very young children, at a higher risk for serious complications from foodborne illnesses.”

“However, the program has not developed more-stringent specifications for some pathogens and foods that have been associated with foodborne illness, such as raw, whole chickens cut into eight pieces that the program provides to schools,” continues the report. “Program officials told GAO they selected products for more-stringent specifications based on their views of the safety risk associated with different types of food; developed these specifications through informal consultation with a variety of groups; and did not document the process they used.

The report also noted that USDA’s commodity purchasing program has several requirements for ground beef that exceed federal commercial requirements:

“The program requires beef suppliers to take actions to reduce the level of pathogens at least twice while beef carcasses are processed. Some large purchasers of raw ground beef have purchasing specifications similar to the commodity program, although they differ in certain details,” says GAO. “For example, of the seven large purchasers that GAO interviewed, five said they require their beef suppliers to take between two and seven actions to reduce pathogen levels on beef carcasses.”