In 2009 an investigation conducted by USA Today caused a stir across the country with claims that fast-food restaurants such as Jack in the Box and KFC were topping quality and safety standards of meat and chicken purchased by school lunch programs across.

“McDonald's, Burger King and Costco, for instance, are far more rigorous in checking for bacteria and dangerous pathogens. They test the ground beef they buy five to 10 times more often than the USDA tests beef made for schools during a typical production day,” wrote Peter Eisler, Blake Morrison and Anthony DeBarros for USA Today. “And the limits Jack in the Box and other big retailers set for certain bacteria in their burgers are up to 10 times more stringent than what the USDA sets for school beef.”

Now fast forward five years. Recently, the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) released a report conducted on a study of the Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS), and its selection tactics of ground beef for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).

According to the report, in 2011 the AMS purchased $150 worth of ground beef products. Of that, one-third was raw and two-thirds was precooked product including, hamburger patties, Salisbury steaks and ground beef.

“Because ground beef is a staple of school menus and has suffered a number of product recalls in recent years, AMS gives the food safety of ground beef particular attention. AMS requires ground beef suppliers to adhere to strict tolerances for Salmonella spp and other potentially harmful pathogens. At the same time, AMS is obligated to select low-cost bidders that agree to meet its standards. Ground beef suppliers achieve food safety by investing in sanitation and cleaning. However, these food safety investments are costly and must be recouped through a higher bid price. AMS ground beef suppliers must, therefore, carefully evaluate their bid price relative to their food safety investments,” states the report.

 Findings from the ERS researchers include:

The food safety performance of active AMS ground beef suppliers to NSLP exceeded the performance of inactive AMS and commercial market suppliers, suggesting that AMS standards encourage superior food safety performance. The data show that Salmonella spp contamination in ground beef tested by AMS was nearly absent.

• The food safety performance of inactive AMS ground beef suppliers was worse than that of all other ground beef suppliers on tests that were one-half to one-tenth the FSIS tolerance for Salmonella spp.

• These relatively weak results imply that AMS’s priority on low costs may encourage suppliers that invest less in food safety to seek AMS approval to supply NSLP. Nonetheless, inactive suppliers performed very well, on average, greatly exceeding the FSIS tolerance for Salmonella spp.

• The food safety performance of active AMS ground beef suppliers on products sold in the commercial market matched that of commercial suppliers and surpassed that of inactive AMS ground beef suppliers on standards that were one-half, one-fourth, and one-tenth the FSIS tolerance for Salmonella spp.

• Some evidence suggests that AMS suppliers consider their food safety performance prior to bidding on contracts to supply the NSLP and place bids only if they are confident their performance meets AMS food safety standards. AMS suppliers that do not bid on NSLP contracts sell their ground beef in the commercial market to other buyers.”

Click here to read the full ERS report.