U.S.D.A. defends N.S.L.P. safety policy

by Bryan Salvage
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WASHINGTON — A USA Today report claims during the past three years, the U.S. government has provided U.S. schools with millions of pounds of beef and chicken that wouldn't meet the quality or safety standards of many quick-service restaurants.

However, officials with the Agricultural Marketing Service (A.M.S.), the U.S. Department of Agriculture agency that buys meat for the school lunch program, counter schools get good products. Meat purchased by U.S.D.A. for the National School Lunch Program "meets or exceeds standards in commercial products," U.S.D.A. added.

Among other things, the article claims U.S.D.A. has supplied schools with thousands of tons of chicken from spent hens that might otherwise go to compost or pet food.

Although current U.S.D.A. rules for meat sent to schools are more stringent than the department's minimum-safety requirements for meat sold at supermarkets, those government rules have fallen behind the increasingly tough standards that have evolved among fast-food chains and more selective retailers, the article claims.

Meat bought by U.S.D.A. is donated to almost every school district in the country and served to 31 million students a day. Sixty-two percent of these kids qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

Rayne Pegg, A.M.S. administrator, told USA Today in a written statement that A.M.S. standards for meat sent to schools have been "extremely successful in protecting against food-borne pathogens." A.M.S. oversight, inspections and tests of that meat exceed those required for meat sold to the general public, she added. The A.M.S. also has a "zero-tolerance" policy that requires rejection of meat that tests positive for Salmonella or E. coli O157:H7, pathogens that can cause serious illness or death.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack promised an independent review of testing requirements for ground beef that the A.M.S. sends to schools after the newspaper presented U.S.D.A. officials with its findings, the article claims. Set for next year, the review is meant "to ensure the food served to our school children is as safe as possible," Mr. Vilsack said.

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