A new report by the National Research Council finds no scientific basis that more stringent testing of meat purchased through USDA's ground beef purchase program and distributed to various federal food and nutrition programs — including the national school lunch program — would lead to safer meat. The report was sponsored by USDA.

Currently, USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service buys ground beef from suppliers who must meet mandatory process, quality, trace-back, and handling controls as well as comply with strict limitations on the amounts of bacteria in the meat, such as E. coli and salmonella. AMS then distributes the ground beef to federal programs, including food banks, emergency feeding programs, Indian reservations, and disaster relief agencies.

In its assessment of AMS's ground beef purchase program, the NRC committee that wrote the report said validated cooking processes provide greater assurance of ground beef's safety than would additional testing for pathogens. "Testing alone cannot guarantee the complete absence of pathogens because of statistical implications associated with how beef is sampled during testing," says the report.

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The committee's analysis of the number of illnesses since 1998 linked with AMS ground beef provided to schools suggests that outbreaks were rare events before AMS requirements became more stringent in February, implying that controls already in place were appropriate for protecting public health. For instance, no recorded outbreaks of E. coli or salmonella associated with AMS ground beef have occurred in more than a decade. Prevention of future outbreaks will depend on eliminating contamination during production and ensuring meat is properly handled, stored, and cooked before it is served, the committee emphasized.

"The report encourages AMS to strengthen its established specifications and requirements for ground beef by utilizing a transparent and clearly defined science-based process," said Gary Acuff, chairman of the committee and professor and director of the Center for Food Safety at Texas A&M University, College Station.

In addition, the report says that some of the requirements were founded on expert opinion and industry practices where the scientific basis was unclear. The committee recommended that AMS base its requirements on standards supported by the International Commission on Microbiological Safety of Foods, the Codex Alimentarius Commission, and the Research Council report, "An Evaluation of the Role of Microbiological Criteria for Foods and Food Ingredients."

"Though AMS may find it appropriate to adopt and implement conservative standards and requirements that both protect public health and provide the best quality product, it needs to consider the potential unintended consequences of increased testing and product requirements," the committee said. Additional testing would likely increase costs to producers, which could affect the purchase price of ground beef available through the program. "Under such circumstances, schools might decide to buy their ground beef on the open market at a lower cost," said the committee.