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USDA Beefs Up School Meat Safety Program

Come fall, the ground beef used in school lunches will be as safe as ground beef sold to the nation's fast food chains - a major improvement, critics say.

The U.S. Agriculture Department announced Friday that it will require all ground beef purchased for the National School Lunch Program to adhere to new safety standards after July 1. The program supplies ground beef, chicken and other food for more than 31 million schoolchildren.

The rules bring school lunches "right in line with contemporary standards," said Dave Theno, a food safety consultant who developed a rigorous safety program for the Jack in the Box chain before retiring in 2008. "In fact, 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."

The department announced in February that it would raise standards for school lunches and has spelled those standards out in detail. The rules call for more stringent microbiological testing and say beef should be sampled every 15 minutes on production lines. Previously, ground beef bound for schools was sampled an average of eight times during an entire production day, and then those samples were combined and subjected to testing once a shift.

The rules make suppliers with "a long-term poor safety record" ineligible to sell to the school lunch program without a complete analysis of why their products failed inspections, said Michael Jarvis, a spokesman for the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, which purchases beef for the school lunch program. No currently eligible contractors would be ineligible under that requirement "if it were in effect," he said.

The standards "look very good," said Carol Tucker-Foreman with the Consumer Federation of America. A former USDA administrator herself, she has long fought to raise the USDA's meat safety requirements for school lunches.

"The new standards announced today ensure our purchases are in line with major private-sector buyers of ground beef," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who has pushed the USDA to raise its safety standards, said she was pleased with the announcement.

"For too long, a McDonald's hamburger has been safer for our kids than those served in some school cafeterias. I applaud the USDA for taking action today to protect millions of American schoolchildren," she said.

The standards come in the wake of a USA TODAY investigation in November and December that found failures in government programs meant to protect students from food-borne illnesses. The newspaper's investigation showed that fast food companies such as McDonald's and Jack in the Box had more rigorous programs for bacteria and pathogen testing than the USDA.

The changes put the school lunch program back in the forefront of safety practices, a place it once held a decade ago. As the best companies in the industry continued to move forward, often in response to E. coli outbreaks at restaurants and the toll they took on sales, the school lunch program did not, USA TODAY found.

The program will put pressure on the meat-grinding companies supplying the school lunch program "to make absolutely certain that they have raw materials of the highest quality," Theno said. "My guess is that most of the people that were supplying were already in compliance. But what this does is ensure that the products we're supplying to our kids are as good as what's available commercially."

The National Academy of Sciences, at the USDA's request, is also reviewing AMS' ground beef purchase requirements to provide recommendations on how the agency can best follow industry-recognized best practices.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director of the non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest, said it's "good that USDA isn't waiting to implement new standards until the NAS completes its review. These steps will push the meat industry to implement tough new testing for all products going into the school lunch program."

The announcement comes a week before AMS' annual conference for contractors, meat suppliers and processors on changes and updates to its purchasing requirements, just before the yearly purchasing cycle begins. The meeting, to open Thursday in Kansas City, Mo., is "where people get into the nitty-gritty" on what USDA wants, said Les Johnson of Les Johnson Associates, a consulting firm that works with companies that sell to the AMS program.

The new requirements don't come as a surprise to the meat industry.

"After the series of articles, a number of industry people I talked with expected the standards would be strengthened and changed," Johnson said. "It will require additional inspectors, and they've got to pay USDA more to get it done. But, since the new rules apply to all suppliers, it doesn't give anyone an advantage over the rest."

There may be some complaints that the new standards could make the school lunch program more expensive. Theno doesn't buy it: "How can a guy offer a quarter-pound, 99-cent hamburger commercially if that's the case?"

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