WASHINGTON — Tough, new, food-safety standards for ground beef purchased by the Agricultural Marketing Service (A.M.S.) for federal food and nutrition assistance programs including school lunches have been completed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.), Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced on May 14.

The new requirements will be applicable to A.M.S. ground-beef contracts awarded on or after July 1.

"The health of our school children is a top priority at U.S.D.A., and today we are moving ahead quickly with plans announced earlier this year to ensure that food provided to nutrition programs is as safe and nutritious as possible," Mr. Vilsack said. "The new standards announced today ensure our purchases are in line with major private-sector buyers of ground beef and are part of our continued effort to employ the best scientific knowledge to increase the safety of our nutritional programs."

In February, Mr. Vilsack announced a series of initiatives to improve the safety of food purchased for school lunch and nutrition assistance programs, and the standards announced May 14 mark the completion of one of those initiatives, he said. The standards are the result of a joint review by the U.S.D.A.'s Food Safety and Inspection Service (F.S.I.S.) and Agricultural Research Service (A.R.S.) that has been ongoing since the February announcement.

In addition to continuing a zero tolerance for E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella, the new A.M.S. standards will:

(1) Tighten microbiological testing protocols;
(2) Tighten the microbiological upper specification and critical limits;
(3) Increase microbiological sampling frequency for finished products to every 15 minutes; and
(4) Institute additional rejection criteria for source trimmings used to manufacture A.M.S. purchased ground beef.

A.M.S. will also consider any vendor classified by F.S.I.S. as having a long-term poor safety record as an ineligible vendor until a complete cause-and-effect analysis is completed.

The National Academy of Sciences (N.A.S.) has begun its review of A.M.S. ground beef purchase requirements. N.A.S. brings together experts in all areas of science to provide an independent review of the program.

The review is focused on three major areas: 1) thorough evaluation of the scientific validity of current technical requirements and methods; 2) to benchmark those processes and methods against recognized industry leading programs, which supply product directly to consumers through retail sales or food service operations; and 3) provide recommendations to A.M.S. on how to perform future periodic evaluations against industry recognized best practices.