The Government Accountability Office has no bone to pick with the way the nation’s school meals program inspects ground beef for food-borne illnesses.
In a new report, the GAO says that the U.S. Department of Agriculture actually calls for the raw meat for school children to be tested more thoroughly than is required for the rest of the public.
But the government watchdog believes that the screening is underdone when it comes to ready-to-eat meat and poultry products, even though those foods have been linked to past bacterial outbreaks.
That pattern — extensive testing for some items, but lax screening of others that are susceptible to food-borne contaminants — runs through the meals program, the GAO says.
As the Center for Public Integrity reports, the GAO found that baby carrots and sliced apples are subjected to enhanced testing, even though the likelihood of either carrying harmful bacteria is small. Yet other fruits and vegetables more likely to carry dangerous bacteria are not given any extra scrutiny.
“Questions remain regarding whether the program has identified the foods and pathogens that present the highest risks to the populations the program serves,” the GAO said.
The school meals program from the USDA provides free and discounted meals to about 30 million kids every day, at a cost of roughly $1 billion annually.
Some analysts say a key problem is that the USDA often is more focused on promoting sales of agricultural products than on food safety.
To address the food safety problems,
the GAO recommended that the USDA create “a more systematic and transparent process to determine whether additional specifications should be developed related to microbial contamination.” In its response to the report, the USDA mostly agreed with the GAO’s points.
Concern over the integrity of the nation’s food supply, particularly following the recall of hundreds of millions of eggs last summer, pushed Congress to pass a landmark food-safety bill late last year.