May 14, 2010

Gillibrand Applauds USDA For Setting New Standards For Ground Beef Purchased For Schools

In December, Senator Urged USDA to Protect School Children By Setting Stricter Ground Beef Standards

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, the first New Yorker to serve on the Senate Agriculture Committee in nearly 40 years, today applauded the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) completion of tough new food safety standards for ground beef purchased by the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) for federal food and nutrition assistance programs, including school lunches. The USDA initiative came at the urging of Senator Gillibrand after she wrote the USDA in December calling for better standards.

“This is the right thing to do to protect our children from dangerous food-borne illnesses, and I applaud the USDA’s action,” Senator Gillibrand. “In America, in 2010, it is unconscionable that food can ever go straight to our kitchens, school cafeterias and restaurants without being properly tested to ensure its safety. We need better food safety standards, not just in our schools, but across the board, to protect all of our families.”

In February, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a series of initiatives to improve the safety of food purchased for school lunch and nutrition assistance programs. The newly completed standards announced today are the result of a joint review by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and Agricultural Research Service (ARS) that has been ongoing since the February announcement and will apply to AMS ground beef contracts awarded after July 1, 2010.

In addition to continuing a zero tolerance for E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella, the new AMS standards will: (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.  AMS will also consider any vendor classified by FSIS as having a long term poor safety record as an ineligible vendor until a complete cause-and-effect analysis is completed.

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has begun its review of AMS ground beef purchase requirements. NAS brings together experts in all areas of science to provide an independent review of the program.  The review is focused on three major areas:  1) a thorough evaluation of the scientific validity of current technical requirements and methods; 2) to benchmark those processes and methods against recognized industry leading programs, which supply product directly to consumers through retail sales or food service operations; and 3) provide recommendations to AMS on how to perform future periodic evaluations against industry recognized best practices.

Senator Gillibrand’s comprehensive food safety agenda is available here.

Senator Gillibrand’s full letter to Secretary Vilsack from December is below:

December 14, 2009

The Honorable Tom Vilsack
Secretary
Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Ave., S.W.
Washington, DC 20250

 

Dear Secretary Vilsack:

I write out of my strong concern for the health and safety of America’s school children.  I have read with dismay that Beef Packers, Inc. has had to recall tens of thousands of pounds of beef because of another recall this year.  This company clearly had problems keeping their meat clean for years, yet they were allowed to supply meat to the school lunch program. 

I applaud your undertaking an internal review of your meat purchasing policy, but in the meantime, I urge you to take immediate action to terminate contracts with any habitual violators of your food safety policies. I introduced a bill earlier this year that defined a habitual violator as a company with three consecutive days or ten instances a year of meat that tests positive for contaminants - a very generous definition for which Beef Packers clearly violates. 

It is extremely fortunate that no children were sickened by the products that Beef Packers sent to schools.  However, at this point we do not know if that is because the raw product was truly free of contamination or if the school cafeteria chefs followed proper handling and cooking procedures.  The testing procedures are not in place to make that determination.

Therefore, I also urge the USDA to implement a strict testing program in order to test every single batch of beef that is destined for the school lunch program.  It is simply not adequate to rely on the visual inspections of inspectors at meat packing facilities.  I also strongly encourage you to adopt the testing program and higher standards for batch rejection used by industry leaders such as Jack in the Box and Costco.  Our children deserve a testing program as least as good as the fast food chains. 

I appreciate your attention to this issue and would appreciate a prompt response regarding my three suggestions. 

Sincerely,

Kirsten Gillibrand
United States Senator