THE FOOD that children eat in school cafeterias should meet cleanliness standards at least as high as those of McDonald's and other fast-food chains.
That's why the U.S. Department of Agriculture must establish safety standards for the 125 million pounds of beef it buys each year for school lunch programs. The dangers of E. coli or salmonella pathogens are too ominous, even if thankfully infrequent, to risk exposing our children.
Until recently, the assumption was that USDA inspections of slaughterhouses and meat processing plants assured a uniform safety standard for all consumers.
But a federal judge in Texas has crippled the agency's enforcement powers, throwing out a scientific testing program for salmonella microbes and barring USDA from shutting down a large beef processing plant that failed four such tests in 13 months. The ruling could be used by processors to block national food safety enforcement.
By requiring tests for disease-causing bacteria and setting limits in school lunch purchases of ground beef, similar to standards used by fast-food chains since the 1993 Jack in the Box food poisoning cases, USDA can bring strong pressure to bear on packinghouses to apply the stricter standards to all their products.
In fact, 90 percent of the major packinghouses easily meet the salmonella test, which is also a sound measure of other pathogens that could be in ground meat. Since USDA began that test in 1998, salmonella found in ground beef has dropped nearly 50 percent.
By law, meat shipped interstate must be USDA inspected. The agency lacks authority to order a recall, but must alert the public to a processors' "voluntary" recall of tainted meat.
Rules for testing school lunch beef will be released by USDA for enforcement this fall. The agency may still win its inspection test case on appeal. Consumer health and safety must be the primary concern, and that of vulnerable school kids is paramount.