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U.S. to keep salmonella testing for school meat

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A week after the Bush administration proposed ending testing for salmonella in beef sold to the federal school lunch program, it reversed course Thursday and said the testing would continue.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Department of Agriculture officials had announced the proposal to stop testing for the pathogen in school beef without the blessing of Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, who had never approved it.

The announcement that testing will continue was made after Democrats and consumer advocacy groups criticized the proposal as another example of Bush trying to relax safety standards.

"First, it's arsenic in water. Now it's salmonella in school lunches. Where will this end?" asked Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, Wednesday.

Last June, President Clinton instituted a "zero-tolerance" policy for salmonella in school beef, requiring salmonella testing for all beef sold to the school lunch program.

About five percent of the beef -- or 9 million pounds -- failed the test and was rejected from June 2000 to March 2001, said Carol Tucker Foreman, who oversaw food safety programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture under President Carter.

Salmonella testing jacked up the price of beef by about 40 cents per pound last year, according to consumer advocates, who said the price has since dropped almost to pre-testing levels.

"It's still a little higher, but the children are worth it. This is no place to look for a bargain," Foreman said.

Instead of salmonella testing, the USDA had proposed "indicator testing" for salmonella, which would mean searching for a strain of the e-coli bacteria that's harmless but whose presence can signal the presence of harmful pathogens.

"We definitely think this is for the better," said Janet Reilly, a spokeswoman for the American Meat Institute, an industry group, before the Bush reversal. "It's a much more science-based testing method."

Reilly said the salmonella testing rule under the Clinton administration was too strict.

"The standards were so difficult to meet that costs were going way up," she said. "School lunch programs couldn't get the meat they needed."

She added that schools are supposed to cook ground beef thoroughly, which should kill salmonella.

"Pathogen standards, in our view, are not useful in a raw product when it's going to be cooked," she said.

But Foreman said that not all school kitchens follow cooking regulations, and that the concern is not just about beef -- but about uncooked foods that could come in contact with raw beef.

"A worker could touch a contaminated hamburger and then touch the buns or the lettuce or the tomato," she said.

The American School Food Service Program had supported the Bush proposal.

"We think they have a stronger basis in science," said Joe Haas, a spokesman for the group, which represents school food service directors and cafeteria workers.

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United States Department of Agriculture
Consumer Federation of America
Center for Science in the Public Interest

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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