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U.S. Proposes End to Testing for Salmonella in School Beef
By MARIAN BURROS
New York Times
April 5, 2001
The Bush administration has proposed dropping testing for salmonella in
ground beef for the federal school-lunch program and letting schools serve
beef that has been irradiated, a procedure that kills salmonella and all
other harmful bacteria but is mistrusted by many consumers.
The salmonella tests, ordered last June by the Clinton administration, were
met with fierce opposition by the meat industry, which complained that the
tests were burdensome and not scientific. The industry has since lobbied to
In those tests, packages of meat were sampled randomly by the government for
salmonella before shipment to schools.
Dr. Ken Clayton, acting administrator of the Agricultural Marketing Service
at the Agriculture Department, said the current testing program did not
ensure that schools were getting the safest food possible. In place of
testing for salmonella, he said, the agency would institute a system to weed
out suppliers who did not meet standards.
With two exceptions, the standards Dr. Clayton outlined are those that
already exist for a meat-processing plant to receive the Agriculture
Department's seal of approval.
The agency will now require a second anti-microbial step at slaughterhouses,
like an acid rinse, for plants that want to sell ground beef to the school
In addition, grinders that do not meet the standards for cleanliness a
certain percentage of the time will not be allowed to supply the school
lunch program and other federal food programs.
The Agriculture Department must make a final decision before July, in time
for the start of the buying season for the new school year.
The proposal means that "neither federal inspectors nor companies involved
will test for a potentially deadly pathogen in meat going to millions of
school children nationwide," said Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Food
Policy Institute of the Consumer Federation of America and a former
Agriculture Department official in the Carter administration.
Senator Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who sits on the agriculture
subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, was also critical of the
change and threatened Congressional action.
"The school lunch program is a very sacred budget in our program," Mr.
Durbin said, "and a lot of senators and congressman don't feel it's a
"First, it was arsenic in drinking water. Now it's salmonella in school
lunches. Where will it end?"
Ms. Foreman said that she did not object to the additions to the safety
standards, but that she believed that the agency must continue to check for
"They caught five million pounds of meat that had salmonella in it last year
that they wouldn't have caught, and they won't catch it next year," she
Dr. Clayton said he had no idea how many companies would choose to irradiate
their ground beef.
Critics of irradiation say it is the easy way to sterilize harmful bacteria
but does nothing to improve the safety of the meat processor.
It would be up to the schools to notify parents if they planned to serve
Irradiation shatters the genetic material of bacteria, killing them.
Scientists say the process leaves no residual radioactivity. The government
began allowing beef to be irradiated a year ago, but relatively little has
been produced, in part because of doubts about whether most consumers would
Mishandling of food, even if it has been irradiated or previously tested as
untainted, can introduce harmful bacteria. And improperly handled raw beef
can cross-contaminate raw food with which it comes in contact.
Salmonella causes 1.4 million illnesses and 600 deaths a year, according to
the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While testing for salmonella
would be eliminated, the Agriculture Department would continue its daily
testing for E coli 0157H:7, except in products that had been irradiated.
It would also test for generic e-coli, which in itself is not harmful but
which indicates the presence of fecal contamination. Even when a sample
tests high for generic e-coli, however, it does not necessarily signal the
presence of salmonella.
As of March 30, 1,436 samples had been taken by federal testers from more
than 120 million pounds of ground beef. Of those, 130 samples were rejected,
75 of them because of salmonella, 10 because of contamination with E coli
0157H:7. The rest were rejected for high coliform counts or the presence of
The meat processors have lobbied hard to get rid of the salmonella testing.
Sara Lilygren, a spokeswoman for the American Meat Institute, said: "The
draft proposal appears to be an improvement for consumers because it allows
irradiated ground beef to be purchased, uses generic e- coli testing to
determine whether the product has been produced in a clean and controlled
environment and abandons the old zero tolerance for salmonella, which had no
basis for reducing food-borne illness risk since it was in a product
required to be cooked to 160 degrees but caused millions of pounds of good
meat to be rejected and jacked up the cost of ground beef."
The salmonella tests added to the cost of ground beef. Irradiation is
expected to do the same, but it is not known by how much.
Until the Clinton administration adopted the science-based specifications
last year, the only safety requirement for school-lunch ground beef was that
it be produced in an Agriculture Department-certified processing plant.
Those specifications were enacted after a federal judge rebuffed the
department's efforts last summer to close a Texas meat-processing plant
based on random salmonella tests the department had conducted.
The plant supplied as much as 45 percent of the ground beef in the
school-lunch program after it failed salmonella tests three times. But the
judge said the department lacked the authority to use such tests, and
ordered that the plant remain open. It closed later last year, however,
after the department decided to appeal the judge's ruling.
Since the rules became effective, salmonella contamination has dropped by as
much as 50 percent, studies show.
"The requirements that were put into effect last year went further than the
fast-food restaurants which have stringent limits but not zero tolerance,"
said Ms. Foreman.
Referring to a coalition of consumer groups that asked the Clinton
administration to set salmonella standards for school-lunch beef, she said:
"We didn't argue for zero tolerance. We just wanted them to set a standard
that limited salmonella."
Mr. Durbin said it might not be necessary to require zero tolerance. "We
should entertain any reasonable approach that still protects our children in
a responsible way," he said. "I don't believe this approach does."