USDA would allow irradiation of school meat

Thursday, April 5th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Ground meat that the government buys for schools could be irradiated and would not have to be tested for salmonella bacteria under a Bush administration proposal.

Critics said Wednesday the plan would allow contaminated meat to get to schools. But the American School Food Association praised the proposal as a ``more science-based approach'' to ensure that meat was safe.

Instead of salmonella tests, the Agriculture Department proposed to tighten the processing standards that slaughterhouses and processing plants would have to meet to continue selling ground beef, pork or turkey to the government. Plants would be tested for general bacteria counts as an indicator of overall plant cleanliness.

``The objective here is to make sure that the suppliers we do business with are operating their manufacturing processes in a way that will maximize the cleanliness and the safety of the product that we're buying,'' said Ken Clayton, acting administrator of the Agriculture Department's Agricultural Marketing Service, which buys food for federal nutrition programs.

Clayton said he didn't know how much irradiated meat USDA would buy, if any. It would be up to schools who buy irradiated meat to disclose that to students and parents, he said.

The salmonella requirement, which the Clinton administration imposed last year on beef purchases, drove up the cost of beef and resulted in some shortages of supply. Before last year, the government would buy meat from any plant that was federally inspected.

The government began allowing beef to be irradiated a year ago, but relatively little has been produced, in part because of doubts about whether consumers would accept it. Irradiating meat eliminates any pathogens, such as E. coli O157:H7, which can be fatal to children and elderly people.

About 5 percent of the beef offered to USDA over the past year tested positive for salmonella and was rejected.

Carol Tucker Foreman of Consumers Federation of America accused USDA of bowing to pressure from the meat industry.

``This decision means that neither federal inspectors nor the companies involved will test for a potentially deadly pathogen in meat going to millions of schoolchildren nationwide,'' said Foreman, who oversaw USDA's food-safety programs during the Carter administration. ``Instead of looking for bacteria that make people sick, inspectors will look only for harmless bacteria that may indicate the presence of fecal contamination.''

Many fast-food chains now require salmonella testing on beef that they buy, but USDA does not believe it is necessary, Clayton said. Sampling plants once a day for salmonella is akin to trying to find a needle in a haystack, and plants that have failed USDA's salmonella tests usually have other sanitation problems as well, he said.

``Unless you sample every ounce of product, you're not going to find it,'' he said.

About 5 percent of the beef offered to USDA over the past year tested positive for salmonella and was rejected.

The new rules would require slaughterhouses to put carcasses through at least two antimicrobial rinses. Beef also would be tested for E. coli O157:H7 as well as general bacteria levels. Plants with consistent problems are to be dropped as suppliers.

As of the end of February, the department had purchased 110.8 million ground beef and hamburger patties, compared with 122.7 million pounds at the same time a year ago. The average price of fine ground beef bought for the current school year was $1.51 per pound, compared with $1.11 in 1999-2000.