The Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) buys ground beef from suppliers that must meet quality, traceability, processing and handling standards – as well as strict limits on the amount of E. coli and salmonella bacteria – for distribution to federal programs such as the National School Lunch Program, food banks, emergency feeding programs, Indian reservations, and disaster relief agencies. The US Department of Agriculture sponsored the National Research Council review in order to assess safety practices used by AMS suppliers.
The review committee found that illnesses linked with AMS ground beef provided to schools were rare events before requirements became stricter in February, with no recorded outbreaks of E. coli or salmonella in more than a decade, suggesting that existing controls were sufficient for protecting the public.
As part of its review, the committee attempted to compare the safety standards used for AMS-purchased ground beef with those used commercially. However, a lack of information on corporate specifications in terms of scientific approaches, and different requirements for fresh meat distribution prevented it from making direct comparisons. All raw AMS ground beef is distributed in frozen form.
The committee found that at least on the surface, “AMS safety requirements appear comparable to or more demanding than those of commercial companies” but added that the scientific basis is unclear for some of its requirements, which are founded on expert opinion and industry practices.
Chair of the committee and professor and director of the Center for Food Safety at Texas A&M University Gary Acuff said: "The report encourages AMS to strengthen its established specifications and requirements for ground beef by utilizing a transparent and clearly defined science-based process."
The report suggests that the AMS should based its standards for ground beef on those devised 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.
The committee added that the AMS should also consider potential unintended consequences of requiring more stringent testing of meat bought for federal nutrition programs. It said that extra testing would likely increase costs for producers, which could increase the price of beef available through the program. This could then lead to schools looking to the open market for lower-priced beef.
Outbreak prevention should focus on avoiding contamination during production, through proper handling, storage, and cooking, the committee said.