April 5, 2001 (Washington) -- In an overnight change of mind, the Bush administration today quickly backed off plans to end required salmonella testing for meat in the federal school lunch program, in the face of sharp criticism from congressional Democrats and consumer advocates.
The administration's plan, officially proposed on March 30 but reported just this morning in national newspapers, did have the support of meat processors and the American School Food Service Association. Rather than continue salmonella testing, the proposal would have tightened meat processing standards and required that plants run a general bacteria test on meat.
"We're withdrawing the proposed changes in contract procedures for meat and poultry related to the school lunch program," U.S. Department of Agriculture spokesman Jim Brownlee tells WebMD.
In a statement today, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said that the proposal had not reflected proper input from all affected groups. "These proposed changes were released prior to receiving appropriate review. Concerns had been expressed about salmonella testing, and those issues should have been addressed prior to any new proposals being considered."
Veneman said, "The safety of our food supply, particularly school lunches for our children, is an extremely important issue and [the] USDA will continue to take appropriate steps to ensure the safest possible food supply."
Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America, tells WebMD that the proposal would have increased the incidence of salmonella poisoning among schoolkids.
"There are some food poisoning cases that are traced directly to the school food and directly to meat," she says. "I think that the numbers would have gone up. It would be too bad, because we are making progress on this problem."
Foreman adds, "The Reagan administration started out with a school lunch fiasco, when they decided that catsup and relish were vegetables, and I suspect there were some people around who thought they didn't want to have that happen again."
Last year, President Clinton implemented "zero tolerance" salmonella standards that required testing of each batch of meat purchased by the USDA for the school lunch program. The policy drove up the cost of meat, and meat processors said the rules were unscientific. At the same time, about 5% of meat tested by the government over the past year has tested positive for salmonella and been rejected.
Salmonella sickens about 1.4 million Americans each year and kills about 600.
More than 33 million meals are served under the federal school lunch program. In 1999-2000, the program spent more than $144 million to purchase more than 122 million pounds of ground beef.
At a news conference today originally planned to protest the Bush administration's proposal, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. Rose DeLauro (D-Conn.), applauded the reversal but emphasized what they alleged was Bush's indifference to public health concerns.
Special interests, DeLauro said, "are ruling the day." She blasted Bush's move to cancel a Clinton initiative to lower arsenic levels in public drinking water, as did Durbin. He said that the salmonella and arsenic policies are a "bad signal" on the priorities of the new administration.
The abortive Bush proposal did not appear to originate from Veneman. "I think that [she] was surprised at the this," Foreman tells WebMD. "She actually had a good record out in California as secretary of agriculture. Consumer groups worked very well with her."