School Meal Programs:

More Systematic Development of Specifications Could Improve the Safety of Foods Purchased through USDA's Commodity Program

GAO-11-376: Published: May 3, 2011. Publicly Released: May 3, 2011.

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Through its commodity program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides commodity foods at no cost to schools taking part in the national school meals programs. Commodities include raw ground beef, cheese, poultry, and fresh produce. Like federal food safety agencies, the commodity program has taken steps designed to reduce microbial contamination that can result in severe illness. GAO was asked to review (1) the extent to which the program's purchasing specifications related to microbial contamination differ from federal regulations, (2) the extent to which specifications for raw ground beef differ from those imposed by some other large purchasers, and (3) examples of schools' practices to help ensure that food is not contaminated. GAO compared the program's purchasing specifications to federal regulations for food sold commercially, gathered information from seven large purchasers of ground beef, and interviewed officials in 18 school districts in five states, selected in part because of their purchasing practices.

For 7 of the approximately 180 commodity foods offered to schools, USDA's commodity program has established purchasing specifications with respect to microbial contamination that are more stringent than the federal regulations for the same foods in the commercial marketplace. For example, the commodity program will not purchase ground beef that tests positive for Salmonella bacteria, while federal regulations for commercially available ground beef tolerate the presence of a certain amount of Salmonella. Program officials told GAO that more-stringent specifications are needed for certain foods they purchase because they go to populations, such as very young children, at a higher risk for serious complications from foodborne illnesses. However, the program has not developed more-stringent specifications for some pathogens and foods that have been associated with foodborne illness, such as raw, whole chickens cut into eight pieces that the program provides to schools. Program officials told GAO they selected products for more-stringent specifications based on their views of the safety risk associated with different types of food; developed these specifications through informal consultation with a variety of groups; and did not document the process they used. The commodity program's purchasing specifications related to microbial contamination for raw ground beef at various processing stages are generally similar to those of some other large purchasers. The specifications used by both the commodity program and these large purchasers are more stringent than federal regulations. USDA's commodity program has several purchasing specifications related to microbial contamination for raw ground beef production, process oversight, and testing. For example, the program requires beef suppliers to take actions to reduce the level of pathogens at least twice while beef carcasses are processed. Some large purchasers of raw ground beef have purchasing specifications similar to the commodity program, although they differ in certain details. For example, of the seven large purchasers that GAO interviewed, five said they require their beef suppliers to take between two and seven actions to reduce pathogen levels on beef carcasses. While all school districts must follow certain food safety practices to participate in federally funded school meal programs, school districts that GAO interviewed have also implemented a number of additional food safety practices. Federal regulations require school districts to develop written food safety plans and to obtain food safety inspections of their schools, among other things. In addition, some of the school districts GAO interviewed have established purchasing specifications related to microbial contamination or food safety for food they purchase in the commercial marketplace, among other things. Nevertheless, few of the district officials GAO interviewed were aware that the commodity program's purchasing specifications for seven products are more stringent than federal regulatory requirements. Officials from half of the districts GAO interviewed said that greater knowledge of these differences would affect their future purchasing decisions by enabling them to make more informed choices. GAO recommends, among other things, that USDA strengthen its oversight of food purchased by its commodity program, by establishing a more systematic and transparent process to determine whether additional specifications should be developed related to microbial contamination. USDA generally agreed with GAO's recommendations and provided technical comments.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA has taken a number of actions to implement our recommendation. In September 2012, the agency established the Food Safety and Commodity Specification Division (FSCSD) within the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), which has provided increased oversight of the standards and testing for foods purchased by the commodity program in the years since it was established. To enhance transparency, AMS set up a webpage in March 2013 that describes the microbiological testing programs for 4 of the 7 commodity foods that we identified in our 2011 report as being covered by more-stringent purchasing specifications. To identify particular pathogens and foods that might merit more-stringent specifications, AMS officials participate in weekly phone calls with USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to track outbreaks of foodborne illnesses. To ensure the periodic review of its purchase specifications, AMS officials indicated they convened internal expert review meetings in November 2013 and March 2014 to discuss new purchase specifications and potential initiation of testing for additional pathogens. In addition, AMS has consulted with other food safety stakeholders--including industry associations, consumer advocacy groups, and federal partners--to solicit feedback on AMS purchase specifications, review microbiological specification testing data, and discuss current industry best practices, among other things.

    Recommendation: To strengthen USDA's oversight of the safety of food purchased by its commodity program and served in federal school meal programs, the Secretary of Agriculture should instruct the commodity program to develop a systematic and transparent process to determine whether foods offered by the program require more-stringent specifications related to microbial contamination, including steps to: identify pathogens, strains of pathogens, or other foods that merit more-stringent specifications; document the scientific basis used to develop the specifications; and review the specifications on a periodic basis.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to our recommendation, USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) created a public webpage that went live on March 21, 2013 that, as of September 2015, describes the microbiological testing programs for 4 of the 7 commodity foods that we identified in our 2011 report as being covered by more-stringent purchasing specifications: boneless beef, ground beef, diced cooked chicken, and egg products. This public website provides information on USDA's food purchase programs, sample collection and processing procedures, laboratory analysis, and microbiological testing results. AMS officials told us that the remaining 3 commodities--raw ground turkey, fresh sliced apples, and fresh baby cut carrots--are either no longer offered by the USDA commodity program in the same form as noted in our 2011 report or have not been ordered through the commodity program in the past two years and are therefore not included on the webpage because testing results are not available.

    Recommendation: To strengthen USDA's oversight of the safety of food purchased by its commodity program and served in federal school meal programs, the Secretary of Agriculture should instruct the commodity program to share information with school districts in a more explicit form regarding the foods covered by more-stringent purchasing specifications related to microbial contamination to enable districts to make more informed choices.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to our recommendation, USDA issued a policy memorandum in August 2011 providing additional guidance to states and school districts on this issue. The memorandum specifically stated that the food safety inspection requirement applies to all schools, even those that do not prepare food on site, and that state agencies must include all schools in their annual reports submitted to USDA.

    Recommendation: To strengthen USDA's oversight of the safety of food purchased by its commodity program and served in federal school meal programs, the Secretary of Agriculture should instruct the commodity program to issue more specific guidance to states and school districts regarding the applicability of the regulatory requirement for food safety inspections to schools that do not prepare food.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

 

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