used in the hot dish could not be conclusively identified, so it is unclear whether the ground beef was obtained through the Federal Purchase Ground Beef Program. The other outbreak, in 2003, involved beef burritos that were distributed in restaurants and schools in Nebraska. On the basis of the details of those incidents and the institutions involved, the committee thought it unlikely that the two outbreaks involved AMS purchased ground beef and did not consider them relevant to the discussion of the safety of ground beef in the Federal Purchase Ground Beef Program.
An outbreak in 1998 was entered into the CDC database with the location “other”, and no food vehicle was identified. However, investigation of the outbreak revealed that students became ill apparently after eating undercooked ground beef in tacos prepared in a school in Washington state. The ground beef was obtained through the NSLP, and this was the only confirmed outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 infection linked to the Federal Purchase Ground Beef Program.
It is noteworthy that the two E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks (in 1998 in Washington state and in 2000 in Minnesota) occurred because undercooked ground beef was served to students and before FSIS issued a requirement that establishments reassess their Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP)1 plans in 2002 (USDA-FSIS, 2002). Successful implementation of HACCP plans in the industry has been widely credited with substantially improving the quality and safety of ground beef.
CDC also received reports of 1,152 confirmed foodborne outbreaks of Salmonella infection in the United States from 1998 to 2007. Ground beef and products containing ground beef were identified as the likely contaminated foods in 36 (3.1%) of the outbreaks. Of the 36, one outbreak was associated with beef lasagna that was prepared at home and eaten in a school; the other outbreaks were not associated with schools. The CDC database indicates that the key ingredient in the lasagna that contributed to the outbreak was eggs, and ground beef was not the likely source of the Salmonella Enteritidis contamination. Hence, no confirmed Salmonella outbreaks in schools during 1998–2007 were associated with ground beef obtained through the Federal Purchase Ground Beef Program or any other source.
The finding that no outbreaks of either Salmonella or E. coli O157:H7 associated with AMS-purchased ground beef have been recorded in more than a decade strongly suggests that existing AMS purchase specifications have been protective of public health. It is possible that sporadic cases and small outbreaks have gone unrecognized. However, the attention given to E. coli O157:H7 infections and school food safety since 2000 makes it unlikely that any sizable outbreaks have occurred. Prevention of such outbreaks depends on continuing to ensure the low likelihood that ground beef is contaminated by pathogens during its production and continuing to ensure that it is properly handled, stored, and cooked before being served.
Food safety requires a system of multiple interventions and controls throughout production and processing. Even when producers and processors minimize or reduce contamination, thorough cooking of ground beef is essential to protect the health of students served by the AMS program regardless of the stringency of purchase specifications.
In response to its charge, the committee detailed several findings and recommendations regarding the AMS Federal Purchase Ground Beef Program. The major findings and recommendations are presented below.
The scientific basis of the current purchase specifications for ground beef is unclear. Some specifications were based on industry practices, but the scientific basis of the industry practices cannot be ascertained by the committee. Other specifications appear to have been based on information that was gathered through informal, ad hoc expert consultation. The Agricultural Marketing Service is encouraged to develop a systematic, transparent, and auditable system for modifying, reviewing, updating, and justifying science-based purchasing specifications.