USDA has several new initiatives set to move forward to assure the safety and quality of food that it supplies to the National School Lunch Program and other food and nutrition assistance programs.
"Nothing is more important than the health and well-being of our Nation's school children," says USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. "We must do everything we can to ensure that our kids are being served safe, high quality foods at school."
Yesterday, Vilsack announced a combined effort of five USDA agencies: Agricultural Marketing Service, Agricultural Research Service, Food Safety and Inspection Service, Farm Service Agency and the Food and Nutrition Service.
These agencies will implement the following initiatives:
- AMS will implement new food safety purchasing requirements for its beef suppliers as a result of a review of the beef purchase program conducted by FSIS and ARS. AMS 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.
- ARS and FSIS will provide technical assistance to AMS for School Lunch and other Federal nutrition assistance programs.
- In addition to the reviews by FSIS and ARS, AMS has asked the National Academy of Sciences to review the ground-beef purchasing program. By the summer, NAS will conduct an evaluation of the scientific validity of AMS' current technical requirements. This review will include benchmarking AMS vendor requirements against recognized industry leading programs that supply product directly to consumers.
- AMS will increase information sharing with other agencies in order to better monitor vendor performance and identify potential food safety issues. Information on in-plant enforcement actions, positive pathogen test results, contract suspensions, recall notifications and more, will be better shared between USDA agencies.
- FSIS will work with AMS to review and evaluate meat, poultry and processed egg vendors as part of the AMS vendor eligibility process.
- FNS will review and evaluate methods that state agencies now use to communicate with schools and school districts regarding product recalls. FNS will develop performance criteria for states that allows them to provide rapid communication to schools and school districts. FNS will provide financial assistance to states to allow them to upgrade the speed and accuracy of food safety messages.
- FNS will also establish a Center of Excellence devoted to research on school food safety issues in FNS child nutrition programs. Research is needed in areas such as produce safety, proper cooling practices, evaluation of in-school food safety programs, and the containment of norovirus, which is the leading cause of foodborne illness in schools.
- FSA is evaluating and strengthening current requirements and will amend those to better reflect compliance with Good Manufacturing Practices and use of a verified Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points program. FSA will ensure that commercial suppliers are able to provide a qualified level of food safety assurance for USDA programs.
These changes and continuous reviews will ensure that the food USDA distributes to school children and others meets the highest quality and safety standards, contends Vilsack.