There’s good news for millions of children who participate in the program daily: The National School Lunch Program’s strict food safety standards work.

A study led by researchers from the University of Connecticut and the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that food safety standards for ground beef supplied to the program are highly effective in keeping harmful bacteria out of school lunches nationwide, the university reported this week.

But ground beef that fails the National School Lunch Program’s inspection can be sold to other vendors and eventually make its way onto consumers’ plates, said John Bovay, study co-author and assistant professor in UConn’s Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics.

That may help explain related data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While there were no indications of foodborne Salmonella or E. coli illnesses from school lunches between 2005 and 2014, 21 outbreaks of Salmonella and 58 outbreaks of E. coli from commercially sold ground beef were reported during the same time period.

Researchers examined the National School Lunch Program because the program is so critical to child nutrition policy and as an anti-poverty measure, Bovay said in the university report.

He and colleagues used a unique data set comprised of test results from mandatory food safety inspections for ground beef destined for the National School Lunch Program, and data from separate, random USDA inspections.

Companies that want to sell ground beef to the National School Lunch program must meet a zero-tolerance policy for Salmonella and E. coli bacteria, Bovay said. Once registered, suppliers can bid for contracts. Additional testing is carried out for every 10,000-pound shipment from a supplier. Companies that repeatedly fail to meet the standards can lose their right to bid on future contracts with the USDA.

With the implementation of the zero-tolerance standards for the school lunch program, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service took food safety inspection many steps further than Food Safety and Inspection Service, which oversees testing and monitoring food safety in meat processing.

The companies that had contracts with the National School Lunch Program had better test outcomes on both tests of shipments to the National School Lunch Program and on random tests, said Bovay.

“It’s clear the zero-tolerance standards are effective,” he said.

As for the beef that eventually makes its way onto consumers’ plates, Bovay said caution and good judgment should always be used when deciding what is safe to eat.

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