The government, which supplies free meat and other commodities to the nation's schools, is having trouble finding affordable ground beef after imposing the testing requirements on meat processors this summer.
The Agriculture Department has purchased less than 40 percent of the school-bound beef that it bought at this time last year and is paying as much as 50 cents a pound more to get it.
The new testing requirements for disease-causing microbes were issued in June just before USDA started taking bids on its meat purchases for the 2000-2001 school year.
Patterned after standards set by fast-food chains, the requirements are significantly tougher than those for meat sold in grocery stores. Processors say the rules are unworkable.
Some schools "are doing menu changes; some are going to the commercial market to buy product," said Barry Sackin, director of government affairs for the American School Food Service Association.
"We do not object to the food safety efforts that the department is making. ... The precipitous nature of this is where the problem lies, not the intent," said Sackin.
The department is confident it will obtain enough beef to supply school needs, spokesman Andy Solomon said Wednesday. The department buys about 125 million pounds of beef a year.
"We're committed to procuring high-quality, safe product for use in the school lunch program and other federal feeding programs," he said.
But Illinois and Wisconsin have canceled their orders for USDA beef for the entire year because of the shortage.
"We cannot discontinue serving hamburgers; it's a very popular food. So we'll go out to our local suppliers and purchase ground beef," said Marilyn Hurt, supervisor of nutrition programs for the LaCrosse, Wis., school district.
Meat that schools buy from commercial sources doesn't have to meet USDA's new standards. Hurt said the LaCrosse school system has enough ground beef in storage to accommodate its needs through the first two to three months of the school year.
Among other things, the new requirements for USDA-purchases say the meat can contain no salmonella bacteria. But salmonella in varying amounts is commonly found in meat.
Meatpackers asked the department Aug. 1 to reconsider the testing rules, saying in a letter that the program was "unworkable and detrimental to the agency's commodity procurement program, your agency and the industry."
The Agriculture Department and meatpackers have been in a dispute since December over salmonella testing for all beef sold in the United States.
Last May a federal judge prohibited the Food Safety and Inspection Service from closing Supreme Beef Processors of Dallas, which supplies about 15 percent of the ground beef for school lunches, after its plant failed a series of salmonella tests.
After the ruling, the department's Agricultural Marketing Service slapped even more stringent testing requirements on meat it purchases for school lunches.
At this point a year ago, USDA had bought 35.5 million pounds of beef. So far this summer, the department has purchased only 14 million pounds and has rejected several offers because the bids were too high.
Processors have been asking as much as $2.25 a pound for fine ground beef, nearly twice what the department paid during the 1999-2000 school year.