News | April 9, 1999

Government Probe to Examine Food Safety Factor in Federal Food Purchases

A probe by the General Accounting Office (GAO) will investigate the safety of billions of dollars worth of meat and poultry purchased annually for the federal government's school lunch program, Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, said Thursday.

Harkin is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, which oversees the U.S. Agriculture Department and its annual $10 billion budget for food subsidies and purchases for children.

He asked the GAO to determine if federal procurement regulations would allow the USDA to give preference to meat companies using steam pasteurization to destroy bacteria, and food companies using other cutting-edge technology.

The investigators will also look at whether the government samples enough food to detect contamination with dangerous bacteria and pesticides.

"Food safety should be the number one priority in USDA food purchases," Harkin said in a statement. "Parents shouldn't be concerned that their child will become sick or die from food eaten in school meals."

The USDA school lunch program serves about 26 million meals daily in public and some private schools. The department also buys and subsidizes food for a similar feeding program for low-income elderly Americans.

Harkin said last month he was drafting legislation to set safety standards for imports of fresh fruits and vegetables, which are under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration. Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, is also preparing a bill to give the FDA more power to stop imports of tainted food.