Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced that USDA had completed 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 health of our school children is a top priority at USDA, and today we are moving ahead quickly with plans announced earlier this year to ensure that food provided to nutrition programs is as safe and nutritious as possible," Vilsack said. "The new standards announced today ensure our purchases are in line with major private-sector buyers of ground beef and are part of our continued effort to employ the best scientific knowledge to increase the safety of our nutritional programs."

This past February, Vilsack announced a series of initiatives to improve the safety of food purchased for school lunch and nutrition assistance programs, and standards announced today marks the completion of one of those initiatives. The standards 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.

The new requirements will be applicable to AMS ground beef contracts awarded on or 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.