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Senator seeks 'strict testing' for meat sent to schools

By Blake Morrison and Peter Eisler | USA TODAY

First lady Michelle Obama hands out fruit to students with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at Hollin Meadows Science and Math Focus School in Alexandria, Va., on Nov. 18.
  By Molly Riley, Reuters
First lady Michelle Obama hands out fruit to students with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at Hollin Meadows Science and Math Focus School in Alexandria, Va., on Nov. 18.
A senator on the committee overseeing the National School Lunch Program called Monday for the government to raise its standards for meat sent to schools across the nation.

In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., urged "a strict testing program" for ground beef similar to those "used by industry leaders such as Jack in the Box and Costco."

Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture already sets special inspection and testing requirements for the meat it sends to schools, a USA TODAY investigation this month found that those requirements lag those set by many fast food restaurants and grocery chains.

Jack in the Box, Burger King, McDonald's and Costco, for instance, check their ground beef for pathogens and contaminants much more frequently, testing as many as 10 samples or more during a typical production day. In comparison, only one sample is tested each day for the ground beef the USDA buys for schools.

The fast food chains set tougher limits for certain bacteria in their hamburger. Ground beef for school lunches can contain up to 10 times the level of some "indicator bacteria" — organisms that, at high levels, suggest the presence of dangerous pathogens such as E. coli O157:H7. "Our children deserve a testing program at least as good as the fast food chains," Gillibrand wrote.

In response to USA TODAY's findings, Vilsack pledged an independent review of testing requirements but stopped short of promising changes. The review is "meant to make sure the system is as safe as possible," said USDA spokesman Caleb Weaver.

Gillibrand called on the USDA "to terminate contracts with any habitual violators of your food safety policies." In particular, Gillibrand cited Beef Packers, a Fresno company that has been a major supplier to the school program.

The company has twice recalled beef this year that contained a drug-resistant strain of salmonella. Although government officials say none of that beef went to schools, USA TODAY found that almost 450,000 pounds of beef produced by the plant from June 5 to 23 — the dates included in the recall — was sent to schools. That beef tested negative for salmonella, but scientists and lawmakers such as Gillibrand say the meat should have been rejected.

Beef Packers has not bid on school contracts since July; Weaver said officials must be convinced the company has fixed its problems before its beef will be sent to schools.

 

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