USDA may include irradiated ground beef in school lunch program soon

Nov 1, 2002 (CIDRAP News) – The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a long-standing policy of not buying irradiated ground beef for the federal school lunch program, but that may change by the end of this year.

The USDA may begin offering irradiated ground beef to school districts for use in USDA-subsidized school lunch programs soon, according to Jerry Redding, a USDA spokesman in Washington. But if that happens, the product will go only to school districts that want it, Redding told CIDRAP News.

Media reports last week said the USDA had changed its rule against buying irradiated beef for the school lunch program, but the reports were wrong, Redding said. "There's no policy change at this point," he said. "We'll have something to say, but we're not ready to roll anything out."

Currently, "By specification, USDA does not purchase irradiated beef for federal feeding programs," Redding said. But the 2002 farm bill, passed last May, included a provision that, in buying food for federal programs, USDA cannot exclude the use of any federally approved food safety technology. The provision, authored by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, was intended to permit the purchase of irradiated foods.

The USDA approved the irradiation of ground beef in 1999, following earlier approval by the Food and Drug Administration. "What the farm bill addressed was the noncompliance of the ground beef purchasing specifications" with those approvals, Redding said. "Ever since the farm bill was passed, our Agricultural Marketing Service has been working on coming into compliance with this," he added.

Last week a USDA spokesperson was talking with reporters and was asked about the irradiation issue, Redding said. "The press secretary said words to the effect that the secretary [of agriculture] is working on this issue and we expect to have an announcement by the end of the year. So somehow in the press this became an announcement" of a policy change.

He said the department has been studying how to change the specifications to include irradiated ground beef while making sure the meat is safe and palatable. One issue is what radiation dose to require, since lethal doses vary for different microbes.

There is some disagreement within the department on whether to invite public comments on the irradiation issue, according to Redding. "Under normal conditions, specifications are not subject to review that way. But this will be kind of a seminal event, and there may be reason to have some public comment."

If the agency does begin including irradiated beef in school lunch commodities, it won't necessarily mean the beef will be served in many schools anytime soon. Redding explained that the USDA buys commodities for the lunch program on the basis of surveys sent to states and school districts each year, so it doesn't buy commodities the schools don't want. Any particular food "doesn't go to anybody that doesn't want it," he said. "The decisions are all made locally."

Redding also said the USDA buys only about 20% of the ground beef used in school lunch programs nationwide. "The rest is bought with local funds on the local market," he said. "So this [policy decision] would affect only what we purchase."

Currently, school districts can buy irradiated meat with their own money, assuming there are no state-level restrictions. In Minnesota, for example, "Schools are perfectly free to buy irradiated products on the local market; it just can't be done with USDA money," said Doug Gray, a spokesman for the state Department of Children, Families and Learning in St. Paul.

Redding said he didn't know how long the USDA has had the rule excluding irradiated foods from federal feeding programs. "The background [for the rule] would be consumer resistance," he said. But now, he added, "Without doubt, the landscape seems to be changing somewhat."

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