Irradiated ground beef could be available in Minnesota public schools by school-year's end. A USDA-funded pilot project underway in three Minnesota school districts is laying the groundwork for the introduction of such products through the federal school lunch program.

Irradiated ground beef purchased from commercial suppliers has been on the menu of some private schools for more than a year, but it was off-limits to public schools purchasing food through the federal school lunch program. That is, until the 2002 farm bill authorized the use of approved food safety technology, including irradiation, on USDA commodity foods offered to schools.

The Minnesota Department of Children, Families & Learning (CFL) says school districts in Spring Lake Park, Sauk Rapids and Willmar are participating in the education pilot project on school food safety and irradiation. The project aims to provide accurate, science-based information on irradiation and school food safety to parents, students, educators, administrators, school boards and community members within those districts. The intent is to provide them with the knowledge to make the best decisions about their school food safety methods and procedures.

Mary Begalle, director of the CFL's Food and Nutrition Service says the Minnesota project consists of three phases. The first phase, just completed, assessed the knowledge level and concerns regarding school food safety and the use of irradiated foods in the three school districts.

That information was used to develop an education component to address those needs and concerns, which is the second phase. It will run from March to April.

Phase three, scheduled for May, will involve evaluating the effectiveness of the education materials and its delivery methods. From that, modifications will be made to the education materials before they are implemented statewide.