Americans love ground beef. On average, each American consumes about 28 pounds of ground beef per year. The government, industry and consumer groups all recommend that ground beef be cooked to 160 degrees Fahrenheit - a temperature that destroys bacteria. Ground beef, unlike raw produce, undercooked eggs and some dairy products, has rarely been associated with salmonellosis outbreaks. Yet for some reason, about a year ago, USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS)decided that the raw ground beef it would purchase during this school year should have a "zero tolerance" for Salmonella. No comparable specifications exist for other raw commodities, such as produce, ground turkey or ground pork. Furthermore, schools are required to cook raw ground beef to 160 degrees, which kills bacteria -- which begs the question: why a zero tolerance standard when the product must be thoroughly cooked?
We think school children deserve the healthiest possible diets - both at home and at school. But USDA's Salmonella standard for federally-purchased ground beef does nothing to promote children's health. First, since no one knows how much Salmonella it takes to make a person sick, any "tolerance" is simply a guess or an opinion - certainly not supported by any scientific evidence. AMI supports research to determine how much and what kind of Salmonella makes people sick, and through which food vectors, and then what control mechanisms - including standards - will best protect consumers.
Second, most of the beef children consume is NOT at school, thus the bulk of a child's ground beef diet comes from a source that does not impose this "zero tolerance" Salmonella standard. Third, FDA's Model Food Code, the guideline for safe food handling which school foodservice personnel follow, requires that ground beef be cooked to 160 degrees Fahrenheit before serving to children. Thus another food safety step, i.e. cooking, has already been mandated throughout school foodservice institutions.
Ultimately, schools have a choice of purchasing foods through the federal government or on the open market. Our member companies sell meat and poultry products both ways. We question, however, standards that do not improve public health but instead appear to be "icons" or false symbols of consumer protection. Consumers deserve better. No one should be duped into accepting someone's "guess" at a standard as a public health protection measure.