USDA to Schools--Salmonella in Kids Burgers is OK

Issue # 87 August 30, 2000
Monitoring Corporate Agribusiness From a Public Interest Perspective
A.V. Krebs Editor\Publisher

Editors salmonella contamination: USDA considering relaxing standards
for ground beef in school lunches

Consumers advocates have reacted in shock to recently announced reports
that the USDA is discussing the possibility of loosening their new
standards for preventing salmonella contamination in ground beef used for
the nation's school lunch program.

When asked recently by the New York Times Marian Burros whether the
department was scaling back their standards, Kathleen Merrigan,
administrator of USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, said, "I would
prefer to say we are fine-tuning them." Neither Ms. Merrigan nor anyone
else at the department would say what the new standards might be.

Since last June, the department, which provides 70%of the ground beef used
in schools, has required that every batch it buys be free of salmonella
whereas prior to that time there were no standards for any pathogens,
including salmonella, a bacteria responsible for about 600 deaths and 1.4
million illnesses in 1999.

Since the regulations went into effect, Burros reports, salmonella
contamination has dropped by as much as 50% studies show.

"Meat processors complained that the standards were unnecessary," she adds,
"because proper cooking kills the bacteria, and were too difficult to meet.
At first many declined to even bid on government contracts for the school
lunch program. But the industry ended up with a glut of beef and over the
last few weeks more companies have offered their meat for sale."

Meanwhile, USDA has been able to buy only half the ground beef it needs for
the schools, and at about 55 cents a pound more.

Officials of the American School Food Service Association said its members,
who are in charge of school feeding programs, are caught in the middle.

"We are fully committed to all steps appropriate to ensuring safety of
food for kids," Barry Sackin, the association's director of government
affairs, said of the salmonella rules. "Our only concern is the precipitous
way it has been implemented."

USDA adopted the new specifications after a federal judge thwarted the
department's efforts to implement random tests for salmonella at a Texas
meat-processing plant. USDA wanted to close the plant, which had supplied
as much as 45% of the ground beef used in the school lunch program, after
it failed tests for salmonella three times. But the judge said the
department did not have the authority to use such tests, which the
department has implemented nationwide, and ordered that the plant remain
open. There upon Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman canceled the
department's contract with the company, Supreme Beef, and adopted the new
standards for its ground beef purchases.

On August 1 meatpackers asked USDA to reconsider its testing rules, saying
in a letter that the program was "unworkable and detrimental to the
agency's commodity procurement program, your agency and the industry.''

Since December the department and meatpackers have been in a dispute over
salmonella testing for all beef sold in the United States.

Some schools "are doing menu changes; some are going to the commercial
market to buy product,'' said Barry Sackin, director of government affairs
for the American School Food Service Association. Meat that schools buy
from commercial sources doesn't have to meet USDA's new standards

"We do not object to the food safety efforts that the department is making
. . . The precipitous nature of this is where the problem lies, not the
intent,'' said Sackin.

USDA has said it is confident that it will obtain enough beef to supply
school needs, according to spokesman Andy Solomon. The department buys
about 125 million pounds of beef a year. "We're committed to procuring
high-quality, safe product for use in the school lunch program and other
federal feeding programs,'' he added.

DMR's George Anthan reports: contaminated meat and poultry in stores
weeks before public warnings

After reviewing records covering cases from 1999 through July, 2000 the Des
Moines Register's George Anthan has learned that meat and poultry
contaminated with the potentially dangerous bacterias of E. coli and
listeria, in some cases, made it to stores and consumers weeks or even
months before the public was warned.

Only a small fraction of the adulterated meat was recovered in a number of
instances, the review revealed. Both bacteria can cause serious illness or
even death. In each case, a public notice was issued by the USDA and the
products were recalled.

"The companies don't wait for the test results before products are
shipped," said Nancy Donley, a Chicago resident who lost a son to a
food-borne illness in 1993. Donley now heads Safe Tables Our Priority
(STOP), a group pushing for advances in food safety. Heather Klinkhamer, a
STOP board member told a food safety conference recently, "The longer
tainted product is in commerce, the higher the probability it will cause

As an example of where meat had long since left a packing plant before
consumers were warned about a problem Anthan relates how Oscar Mayer Foods
of Madison, Wisconsin packed 28,312 pounds of luncheon meat on Oct. 29,
1998, and distributed the products nationally. Several weeks later, a
federal food safety compliance officer took a sample of the packaged meats
following a report of an illness in Kansas City, Missouri.

"The sample tested positive for listeria, a potentially serious disease
which can lead to meningitis. It is sometimes fatal in people with weakened
immune systems," he reports.

A public notice and a recall were issued Jan. 15, 1999 --- 2? months after
the meat was originally processed. Only 771 of the 28,312 pounds were

"Unfortunately, there are times when we discover a need to recall product
after the product is, in fact, on the retail shelf," said Charles Gioglio,
director of the USDA's recall management division. Gioglio said when the
amount recovered is less than the amount recalled, "Some of that product is
being consumed by the public. . . . The longer the product has been on the
market, the less one would expect to recover."

From 1995 through last year, Anthan adds, almost 60% of the total of 32,000
USDA's test samples were taken from retail stores.

"But the USDA, armed with new, more sensitive tests, has begun to shift its
emphasis to processing facilities where many companies agree to hold
products while test samples are analyzed. So far this year, the USDA says,
3,700 microbiological tests have been conducted in processing plants,
compared with 950 in retail stores.

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