WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Agriculture has finalized what it is calling tougher new standards for ground beef purchased by the Agricultural Marketing Service for federal food and nutrition assistance programs including the National School Lunch Program, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced.

"It is one of my highest priorities to ensure that food provided to the National School Lunch Program and other nutrition programs is as safe and nutritious as possible," Mr. Vilsack said. "The new standards guarantee our purchases are in line with major private-sector buyers of ground beef. We will continue to apply the best scientific knowledge to increase the safety across the board of our nutritional programs."

In February, Mr. Vilsack announced a series of initiatives to improve the safety of food purchased for nutrition assistance programs. The final standards are the result of a detailed, ongoing review by U.S.D.A.'s Food Safety and Inspection Service (F.S.I.S.) and Agricultural Research Service (A.R.S.).

These new requirements will be applicable to A.M.S. ground beef contracts awarded on or after July 1. The A.M.S. released a draft of the plan in May with a request for comments. Based upon comments and data submitted by the Department of Agriculture's F.S.I.S. and A.R.S. and members of the general public, revisions were made to the final specification that will be used for purchases beginning in July.

The new A.M.S. standards, in addition to continuing a zero tolerance forE. coliO157:H7 andSalmonella: (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 AMS 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 new purchasing requirements can be found at: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELPRDC5085021.