Consensus Report

An Evaluation of the Food Safety Requirements of the Federal Purchase Ground Beef Program (2010)

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To ensure the safety of food distributed through the National School Lunch Program, food banks, and other federal food and nutrition programs, the United States Department of Agriculture has established food safety and quality requirements for the ground beef it purchases. This National Research Council report reviews the scientific basis of the Department’s ground beef safety standards, evaluates how the standards compare to those used by large retail and commercial food service purchasers of ground beef, and looks at ways to establish periodic evaluations of the Federal Purchase Ground Beef Program. The report finds that although the safety requirements could be strengthened using scientific concepts, the prevention of future outbreaks of foodborne disease will depend on eliminating contamination during production and ensuring meat is properly cooked before it is served.

Key Messages

  • Analyzing data that the Agricultural Marketing Service collects could provide insight that could help evaluate and revise the purchase program's specifications. As part of its program to ensure the safety of the beef it purchases, the Agricultural Marketing Service routinely collects data from samples obtained from ground beef production lots. More detailed analysis of this wealth of data could provide information on correlations
  • Keeping track of scientific developments associated with current and emerging pathogens of concern would allow the Agricultural Marketing Service to develop proactive strategies to protect vulnerable consumers, such as school children and the elderly. Partnerships with the Agricultural Research Service, the Food Safety and Inspection Service, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would allow the Service to keep abreast of scientific advances. The use of existing advisory committees such as the National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods could provide input for purchase specifications.
  • Proper cooking kills pathogens that may be present in ground beef, meaning that even raw ground beef containing bacteria levels that exceed Agricultural Marketing Service specifications would be safe to eat if cooked to Food Safety and Inspection Service standards in a U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected facility. The committee found that there is no apparent health benefit of the Agricultural Marketing Service policy of not purchasing noncompliant raw ground beef that they know will be cooked according to Food Safety and Inspection Service guidelines in a U.S. Department of Agriculture- inspected facility.
  • The committee found little information detailing the scientific (or any other) basis on which these corporate specifications were made, and as a result, was unable to make direct comparisons of the Agricultural Marketing Service specifications with those of the corporate purchasers.
  • The purchase specifications used by 24 different large corporate purchasers of ground beef vary considerably, likely because they depend on the intended use of the meat. For example, distributors of fresh products may require standards designed to improve shelf life, while distributors of products that are cooked and then frozen will have different requirements. These differences lead to variations in the acceptable levels of bacteria such as E. coli, E. coli O157:H7, Staphylococcus aureus, and Salmonella in the meat.
  • The scientific basis for the current purchase specifications for ground and boneless beef is unclear. The committee found some requirements were based on industry practices, but the scientific foundation of these practices could not be ascertained. Internationally recognized bodies such as the International Commission on Microbiological Specifications of Foods and the Codex Alimentarius Commission have used scientific methods to determine how tests of the bacteria levels in food can be used to help improve public health. Following these scientific principles would provide a transparent and systematic process for establishing purchase specifications.
  • The use of scientifically sound resources, such as data, formal expert consultation, and peer-reviewed reports, would further strengthen the Agricultural Marketing Service purchase specifications. A 2010 update to the Agricultural Marketing Service purchase specifications relied heavily on ad hoc expert opinion, which the committee determined to be the least preferred form of evidence.