Ground Beef in School Lunches Meets Stricter Microbial Standards
USDA’s Economic Research Service examined the impact of food-safety standards imposed by the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) on suppliers of ground beef to the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).
Because ground beef is a staple of school menus and has suffered a number of product recalls in recent years, AMS pays particular attention to the food safety of ground beef. The report addresses the need for information regarding economic incentives for suppliers to improve the food safety of their products.
The researchers found that the food-safety performance of active suppliers exceeded the performance of inactive ones (meaning they sought approval to supply the NSLP but did not bid for contracts) and commercial market suppliers, “suggesting that AMS standards encourage superior food safety performance.”
AMS and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which regulates ground beef sold in general commerce, have different tolerance levels for microbial testing and testing frequency and for certain slaughter operation procedures.
In order to adhere to AMS’ strict tolerances for Salmonella and other potentially harmful pathogens, ground beef suppliers have to make costly investments in sanitation and cleaning. The companies recoup the costs through higher bid prices, but they still have to bid low enough to be selected by AMS.
The research found that inactive AMS suppliers exceeded FSIS’ tolerance for Salmonella, but that they were worse than all other suppliers on tests that were one-half to one-tenth the FSIS tolerance.
Some evidence suggests that AMS-approved suppliers consider their food-safety performance before bidding on contracts to supply the NSLP. Those suppliers who may not be confident that they would meet AMS food-safety standards and don’t bid then sell their ground beef in the commercial market to other buyers.