The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced sweeping steps Thursday to "assure the safety and quality of food" purchased for the National School Lunch Program.
The measures include tightening requirements on companies that supply ground beef to schools, testing the beef more often and more thoroughly, and improving communications within the USDA to "identify potential food safety issues" before children get sick.
The initiatives come in the wake of a USA TODAY investigation that revealed failures in government programs intended to protect students from food-borne illnesses. More than 31 million children participate in the school lunch program.
The newspaper found that McDonald’s and other fast-food chains are far more rigorous than the government in checking for bacteria and dangerous pathogens in beef. USA TODAY also found that the government lacks ways to quickly alert schools when products have been recalled or implicated in safety investigations.
The measures outlined Thursday are intended to address each of those points, bringing the standards and testing protocols in line with those used by the most selective restaurants and retailers. "It’s a big deal," food safety consultant David Theno said of the USDA measures. He said the moves will push companies to "play to a higher standard" if they want to continue to supply food to schools.
The USDA also pledged to review the safety records of its school lunch suppliers more carefully and bar companies that have had repeated problems with their commercial products.
Such a move could affect companies such as Beef Packers, a Fresno company that recalled 826,000 pounds of ground beef last summer because it contained a drug-resistant strain of salmonella. Public health officials warned consumers to discard products from the company, which had a history of salmonella problems, but USA TODAY found that the USDA paid Beef Packers hundreds of thousands of dollars for 450,000 pounds of ground beef made during the period covered by the commercial recall.