New Standards for School Lunches

In the wake of a 2010 report that found that the quality of food purchased for the federal school lunch program was lower that that of foods found at fast food restaurants, school districts have implemented a number of new food safety practices — in some cases exceeding federal requirements, says a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).

After interviewing district officials in five states, however, the GAO found that many were not aware that the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) commodity program, which provides staples like raw ground beef, cheese, poultry, and fresh produce at no cost to schools, has, in some cases, even more stringent safety mandates than federal regulations require.

According to the GAO report from GAO report , released May 3, “questions remain regarding whether the program has identified the foods and pathogens that present the highest risks to the populations the program serves.”

On some scores, the school lunch program outperforms federal safety standards. USDA regulations, for example, permit small amounts of Salmonella bacteria in beef and allow beef that tests positive for E. coli 0157:H7 to be sold if it’s cooked first. In both cases, such contamination means rejection from school lunches.

On the other hand, some fresh produce supplied for school lunches is purchased through the Department of Defense Fresh Program, which provides 50 million dollars to 43 states, Puerto Rico, The Virgin Islands, and Guam. The federal regulations applied to these purchases don’t require any microbial testing.

Robert Buchanan, PhD, director of the Center for Food Safety and Security Systems at the University of Maryland in College Park, thinks that the report has some gaps–and so might the program. “Trying to ensure the safety of everything by microbiological standards is not the way to go. You want to build it in through prevention processes, which the report did not focus on,” he said. “Rule number one is that they need to be comfortable that they can turn out a safe product starting with raw ingredients. That starts with training and good supervision.”

Dr. Buchanan added that he would have liked to see a risk analysis done on the school lunch program before the GAO released the report. “That would have made it easier to understand why the schools chose certain foods and not others for which to ramp up their standards,” he said. “In some ways, I’d be more worried about their poultry than their ground beef. I consider it a more dangerous product.”

For example, while the lunch program performs extra pathogen testing in cooked, diced chicken, it doesn’t do so with other ready-to-eat meat and poultry products, like cubed ham and smoked turkey breast.

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