WASHINGTON — An official with the American Meat Institute said the Dec. 9 USA Today report questioning the safety of the food used for the National School Lunch Program is mistakenly based on testing specifications alone.

"Ground beef is safe and getting safer," Janet Riley, senior vice-president, A.M.I. public affairs and member services, told MEATPOULTRY.com. "All ground beef sold in the U.S. must meet strict food-safety standards, which commonly include microbiological testing. Ground beef also is carefully inspected. Federal data show that the rate of ground beef testing positive for E. coli O157:H7 declined 45% since 2000 to less than one-half of 1%. Cooking to 160°F or "medium" destroys pathogens in the unlikely event that they are present."

Customers commonly set their own specifications for the ground beef that they buy, she explained. "U.S.D.A.’s school lunch program has a set of specifications, as do retail stores and restaurants," she added. "These specifications are in addition to federal regulatory standards.

"It is simply inaccurate for USA Today to suggest, based upon testing data only, that one set of testing specifications is better than another or that they guarantee some meat is safer than other meat," Ms. Riley continued. "Testing does not make meat safe. Rather, farm-to-table systems that include anti-microbial technologies in plants and careful cooking and handling ensure that meat is safe when served."

While the article attempts to suggest that somehow school lunch food-safety standards are too low, the fact is, there haven’t been any foodborne illness outbreaks associated with U.S.D.A.-purchased products in school lunch programs since U.S.D.A. started its testing program a decade ago, Ms. Riley pointed out.

"Good food-safety systems always evolve with the science, and we know that just as we make changes in our plants to respond to new challenges, our customers also may change their specifications in an effort to ensure food safety," she said. "This is what responsible business people do, whether they process meat, sell it in a restaurant or buy it for schools. Americans should feel confident in the safety of the U.S. ground beef supply and in ground beef products served in school lunches."