I've been writing a lot these days about school lunches and the recent USA Today investigations that have found everything from "spent hens" to tainted beef served up at school. For once I have some good news to report. The USDA announced recently plans to enact sweeping reforms in safety standards for federally purchased foods.

USDA official Craig Morris told program suppliers at a National Meat Association conference last week that the organization is working hard to ensure that food purchased for the National School Lunch Program — in particular, ground beef — is "as safe, wholesome and high quality" as the best commercial products. According to Morris, the new rules for beef will be in effect by July, with new safety rules to follow for other commodities bought for the lunch program, such as poultry, eggs and produce.

The school lunch program feeds 31 million students each school day. Yet, investigations have found that school lunches are not tested as rigorously for bacteria and pathogens as beef bought by many fast-food chains. Some food producers have been allowed to continue supplying the school lunch program despite having poor safety records with their commercial products.

The USDA reforms will focus largely on how beef and other foods bought for schools are tested for salmonella, E. coli, and other contaminants. According to Morris, the agency will commission research to ensure that its testing standards meet those of the most selective commercial buyers.  

The review could also determine whether the USDA will continue sending schools chicken from "spent hens" — old egg-laying birds. Commercial buyers, such as KFC and Campbell Soup, won't buy the meat because it doesn't meet their standards, but in recent years the USDA has bought millions of pounds of spent-hen meat for schools.

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