The USDA’s National School Lunch Program, which buys more than 100 million pounds a beef per year that’s served to 31 million students each day, has safety requirements for its meat that wouldn’t meet the quality or safety standards of many fast-food restaurants, according to a recent USA Today investigation.

Jack in the Box, McDonalds, KFC and other chains have far more rigorous standards than the government program, the report uncovered, which includes testing the ground beef they buy five to 10 times more often than the USDA tests beef made for schools during a typical production day.

"We simply are not giving our kids in schools the same level of quality and safety as you get when you go to many fast-food restaurants," said J. Glenn Morris, professor of medicine and director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida. "We are not using those same standards."

Some of the meat given to students includes old birds known as “spent hens,” whose standards are so low that they’re also eligible to made into pet food or compost. Even Campbell Soup and KFC won’t buy them, citing concerns about “quality considerations.” 

For its part, the rules for meat sent to schools are stricter than meat sold in supermarkets; however, there have been multiple recalls of E. coli-tainted meat sold in supermarkets over the past few years.

Still, the USDA says the meat it buys for the National School Lunch Program "meets or exceeds standards in commercial products."

In addition, officials with the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), the USDA agency that buys meat for the school lunch program, insist that schools get top-notch products.

According to the newspaper's investigation, the problem has been persisting for years.  In 2000, then Agriculture-secretary Dan Glickman directed the USDA to adopt “the highest standards” for school meat, yet nine years later the department has yet to act on those orders.

Barry Carpenter, a former AMS official who set up the current testing requirements back in 2000 and is now the head of the National Meat Association, believes the AMS could easily raise the standards without much fuss from the industry, saying, “If I was still at AMS, I'd say, 'Where are we (with today's rules) and where do we need to tighten them?' "

He added that raising the standards “wouldn’t cost much” and it would help combat perceptions that the school lunch program is "a market of last resort" for meat that can't pass muster with commercial buyers.

Meanwhile, the government’s standards continue to fall behind the increasingly tough standards that fast-food chains and select retailers have developed for themselves, in part in response to outbreaks that have shaken the public’s confidence in the safety of fast food.

Jack in the Box, after experiencing an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in its restaurants in 1993 that left hundreds sick and four children dead, led the way in creating a new industry standard in safety testing.

Though there are currently no immediate measures to update the government’s food safety requirements, next year Congress plans to revisit the Child Nutrition Act, which governs the lunch program. In addition, after being presented with USA Today’s findings, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack promised an independent review of testing requirements for ground beef that the AMS sends to schools.