U.S. may relax standards on meat for school lunches

Sunday, August 27th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Agriculture Department officials say they are discussing the possibility of loosening their new standards for preventing salmonella contamination in ground beef used for the nation's school lunch program.

The reconsideration, which was provoked by criticism from the food industry, has angered consumer advocates.

Since June, the department, which provides 70 percent of the ground beef used in schools, has required that every batch it buys be free of salmonella. Before that, there were no standards for any pathogens, including salmonella, bacteria responsible for about 600 deaths and 1.4 million illnesses last year.

Meat processors complained that the standards were unnecessary – because proper cooking kills the bacteria – and were too difficult to meet. At first, many declined to even bid on government contracts for the school lunch program.

But the industry ended up with a glut of beef, and over the last few weeks, more companies have offered their meat for sale. Still, the department has been able to buy only half the ground beef it needs for the schools, and at a higher price than usual.

School officials in Wisconsin and Illinois said they would buy ground beef on the open market to ensure a steady supply, and New York City officials said they would do the same but reduce the amount they used.

Faced with the industry criticism, Agriculture Department officials began to reconsider the salmonella rules.

When asked last week whether the department was scaling back the standards, Kathleen Merrigan, administrator of the department's Agricultural Marketing Service, said, "I would prefer to say we are fine-tuning them."

Neither Ms. Merrigan nor anyone else at the department would say what the new standards might be.

Consumer groups accused the department of caving in.

Carol Tucker Foreman, a former Agriculture Department official and director of the Food Policy Institute of the Consumer Federation of America, said the department was falling back on its more traditional role of promoting the interests of the food industry and neglecting its duty to protect consumers.

That duty is one that Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman has accepted with greater vigor than most of his predecessors.

"What we are saying is they should change their priorities," Ms. Foreman said. "They are saying, 'To buy meat with no salmonella costs us more money, and it's not worth it.' [The department's] ... first obligation is to ensure safe food for children who eat school lunches."

Officials of the American School Food Service Association said its members, who are in charge of school feeding programs, are caught in the middle.

"We are fully committed to all steps appropriate to ensuring safety of food for kids," said Barry Sackin, the association's director of government affairs. "Our only concern is the precipitous way it has been implemented."

The department adopted the new specifications after a federal judge rebuffed its efforts to implement random tests for salmonella at a Supreme Beef Processors plant in Dallas.

The department wanted to close the plant, which had supplied as much as 45 percent of the ground beef used in the school lunch program, after it failed tests for salmonella three times. But the judge said the department did not have the authority to use such tests, which the department has implemented nationwide, and ordered that the plant remain open.

Mr. Glickman canceled the department's contract with Supreme Beef and adopted the new standards for its ground beef purchases. Since the regulations went into effect, salmonella contamination has dropped by as much as 50 percent, studies show.