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Published in Print: April 11, 2001, as USDA Flips on Ground-Meat Rules For School Lunches

USDA Flips on Ground-Meat Rules For School Lunches

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The Bush administration last week abruptly withdrew a proposal that would have allowed ground meat sold to schools to be treated with radiation, while lifting requirements that it be tested for salmonella.

In place of the salmonella tests, the March 30 proposal would have tightened processing standards for slaughterhouses and packing plants that sell meat to the government for the school lunch program.

But the Department of Agriculture rescinded the proposal April 5 amid an outcry from consumer advocates and other critics, who argued that the tests were needed and that irradiated meat could pose a health danger. Irradiation has been a controversial treatment because it briefly exposes the meat to radiation to kill contaminants such as E. coli bacteria.

"These proposed changes were released prior to receiving appropriate review," Secretary of Agriculture Ann M. Veneman said in a written statement last week. "Concerns had been expressed about salmonella testing, and those issues should have been addressed prior to any new proposals being considered."

Shortly after the proposal was withdrawn, several congressional Democrats and Consumer Federation of America members held a Capitol Hill press conference.

"Beef in our school lunch program is paid for by taxpayers and served to young children who are vulnerable to food-borne illnesses," Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said during the event. "Both deserve better than ground beef that might not even meet the standards required by some fast-food restaurants."

Impact on Supply, Costs

The USDA proposal would have replaced interim regulations, adopted last summer by the Clinton administration, that required that a sample of ground meats being sold to the Agriculture Department for school lunches or other purposes be tested for salmonella.

The interim rules have significantly affected the supply and costs of ground beef, because some suppliers do not want to have to put their products through the tests. The USDA also has chosen not to buy any ground turkey or pork for the school lunch program this academic year because of lower supplies and higher costs under the interim rules.("USDA Standard Could Make School Hamburgers Rare," Sept. 13, 2000.)

Among the groups that had lobbied for the Bush administration's proposed change was the American School Food Service Association, which represents administrators of school nutrition programs. "ASFSA supported the revised specifications based on its assessment that the new standards would be stronger and safer, but the association defers to the USDA on these issues," the Alexandria, Va.-based organization said in an April 5 statement.

On March 21, the ASFSA joined with meat-industry groups and wrote to the Agriculture Department to complain that the interim rules had created problems for supplying schools with meat and had caused a decline in meat purchases for the school lunch program.

"We recommend that USDA work closely with industry in developing a rational, science-based set of guidelines, rather than the multiple standards that exist today," the groups wrote.

But the Democratic lawmakers who rallied against the proposal last week charged that the proposal was the latest in a series of dangerous rollbacks of environmental and safety regulations by the new administration. Sen. Durbin has called for revamping food-safety regulations and better coordinating their enforcement under one agency, a move he said was inspired by a recent meeting with the mother of a 6-year-old who died after eating a contaminated hamburger.

Beyond Secretary Veneman's statement, the USDA refused to comment further on last week's decision or to provide any timeline for the release of new regulations.

Vol. 20, Issue 30, Page 29

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