Bush Backs Off Easing School Lunch Standards

W A S H I N G T O N, April 5, 2001 -- The Bush administration is backing away from announced plans to ease standards on meat inspection in government school lunch programs.

It took only hours for the White House to turn the story around, announcing it is not true that the administration will ease up on rules to check school lunch meat for possible salmonella contamination.

In fact, the White House says, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman is announcing that all the ground beef kids eat at school will be carefully inspected and standards will not be lowered.

"She has made her decision," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters today at his daily briefing. "The U.S. Department of Agriculture will continue to have those standards in place to test school lunches."

Lower level USDA officials had announced the administration would stop the testing, a signal that sparked outrage among consumer groups and led to the administration's retreat.

Fleischer said the lower level officials were simply incorrect, acknowledging the option was being considered but newspaper reports that the decision had already been made were premature.

Some consumer groups and Democratic lawmakers claim the USDA officials were preparing to take the step in response to pressure from meat processors.

"Each and every time that the Bush administration was faced with a choice between what the special interests want and what people need, they have chosen the special interests," Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said. "In this instance, the administration was willing to jeopardize the health and safety of our youngsters."

Illinois Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin, for one, applauded the White House move, saying "someone in that department has been caught with their hand in the hamburger."

Ann Compton and Terry Moran contributed to this report.