WASHINGTON — For the more than 31 million children who participate in the National School Lunch Program (N.S.L.P.), food safety help is on the way. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on Feb. 4 announced several new initiatives to assure the safety and quality of food purchased by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the N.S.L.P. and other food and nutrition assistance programs.
“Nothing is more important than the health and well-being of our nation’s school children,” Mr. Vilsack said. “We must do everything we can to ensure that our kids are being served safe, high quality foods at school. Today’s announcement demonstrates our commitment to constantly improving the safety and quality of foods purchased by U.S.D.A.”
As part of the effort, five U.S.D.A. agencies have set forth initiatives geared toward raising the food safety standards and testing protocols in schools to be more in line with that of restaurants and food retailers.
The initiatives include:
• The Agricultural Marketing Service (A.M.S.) said it will implement new food safety purchasing requirements for its beef suppliers as a result of a review of the beef purchase program conducted by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (F.S.I.S.) and the Agricultural Research Service (A.R.S.). The A.M.S. also said it will continue its zero tolerance for Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7 for its products and will continue to use onsite meat acceptance specialists and other control measures.
• The A.M.S. will look to the A.R.S. and the F.S.I.S. for technical assistance in regards to school lunch and other federal nutrition assistance programs. In addition, the A.M.S. said it has asked the National Academy of Sciences (N.A.S.) to review the ground beef purchasing program. By the summer, the N.A.S. is expected to have conducted a thorough evaluation of the scientific validity of the current A.M.S. technical requirements, with the review set to include benchmarking A.M.S. vendor requirements against recognized industry leading programs that supply product directly to consumers.
• The A.M.S. has vowed to increase information sharing with other agencies in order to better monitor vendor performance and identify potential food safety issues in the process. Included in the information sharing will be discussion on in-plant enforcement actions, positive pathogen test results, contract suspensions and recall notifications.
• The F.S.I.S. has agreed to work with the A.M.S. to review and evaluate meat, poultry, and processed egg vendors as part of the A.M.S. vendor eligibility process.
• The Food and Nutrition Service (F.N.S.) said it will review and evaluate methods currently being used by state agencies to communicate with schools and school districts regarding product recalls. The F.N.S. said it will develop performance criteria for states that allow them to provide rapid communication to schools and school districts, as well as provide financial assistance to states to allow them to upgrade the speed and accuracy of their food safety messages.
• The F.N.S. also has agreed to establish a Center of Excellence that will be devoted to research on school food safety issues in F.N.S. child nutrition programs. Research at the center is expected to include produce safety, proper cooling practices, evaluation of in-school food safety programs, and the containment of norovirus, according to the F.N.S.
• For its part, the Farm Service Agency (F.S.A.) has begun evaluating and strengthening current requirements and will amend those requirements to better reflect compliance with Good Manufacturing Practices and use of a verified Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points program. The F.S.A. will ensure that commercial suppliers are able to provide a qualified level of food safety assurance for U.S.D.A. programs.