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School Lunches Get Safer; Still a Long Way to Go

Beth Adelson, May 18, 2010

School LunchAfter July 1, all ground beef purchased by the National School Lunch Program will be required to be as safe as ground beef used by fast food chains, according to new standards announced by the USDA.

The stricter standards follow a 2009 investigation by USA Today that found safety standards set by the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), a part of the USDA that buys meat for school lunches, were lower than those set by many fast food restaurants. The investigation found cases in which the AMS bought ground beef that retailers and fast-food chains would have rejected because of high amounts of so-called indicator bacteria – which can indicate an increased probability that the product contains dangerous pathogens.

In addition, the investigation found that the AMS testing procedures for ground beef are sorely deficient. Regardless of how long the production day runs, AMS combines eight samples of school-bound ground beef for a single combined pathogen test. That means 100,000 pounds of ground beef could be tested only once for pathogens. In comparison, many fast food chains take samples of their ground beef every 15 minutes and test the combined sample every one or two hours. So, basically, a fast food restaurant tests their ground beef five to 10 times more often than the USDA tests school lunch beef. Thankfully, the new school lunch standards will require that AMS test their ground beef at the same rate as fast food restaurants.

The investigation also found that the school lunch program purchases tons of chicken for schools that KFC or the Campbell Soup Company wouldn't use. The chicken bought by the USDA might otherwise go to compost or pet food if it weren't being eaten by schoolchildren.

Children are uniquely vulnerable to foodborne illness because of their still developing immune systems, and many strains that would be a nuisance for adults can prove life-threatening for them. According to the CDC, at least 23,000 children were sickened from eating school lunch food from 1988 through 2007. However, the CDC believes that many more cases go unreported.

As Senator Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY), an advocate of school lunch reform put it:

"Our schools and parents have a right to know where food is coming from and whether it's high-quality. I don't know why we're not putting better protections in place for our most vulnerable population. We have to reform how we feed our children in schools."

USA Today, which should be commended for its work, also found many other problems with school lunch safety during its examination of the program last year.

Due to breakdowns in communications with the FDA, the school lunch program repeatedly used suppliers with a long history of food safety violations. In one case, flour tortillas caused foodborne illness outbreaks at more than a dozen schools in 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006 and required a general recall of tens of thousands of tortillas. The FDA even issued a warning about tortillas from the company causing illness. However, no one ever communicated the recall or the warning to school lunch officials.

The USDA has been no better at communicating with the school lunch program.

After a salmonella outbreak in 2008 was traced to Beef Packers Inc, the USDA recommended that the company recall hundreds of thousands of pounds of ground beef. However, during the recall, the government bought four orders from Beef Packers Inc for the school lunch program, one of which tested positive for salmonella. The other three orders were still used for school lunches, even though they were produced during the recall date and even though, as a food safety expert consulted in the investigation said, the foodborne pathogen tests used in this case are inconsistent and often incorrect.

Beef Packers Inc. has continued to garner tens of millions of dollars in school lunch contracts despite the 2008 outbreak and other issues; in recent years the company has also been suspended three times because of repeated evidence of salmonella contamination. USA Today also found that the company had almost twice the rate of positive salmonella tests than other large American producers.

Representative Rosa Delauro (D-Conn.), a food safety advocate and chair of the House appropriations subcommittee on agriculture, asked:

"When you're dealing with repeated violations, why do we continue to reward these companies?"

Good question, Representative. Fortunately, according to a USDA spokesperson, the new USDA standards wouldn't allow ground beef suppliers with "a long-term poor safety record" to sell to the school lunch program until a complete analysis was completed. However, the spokesperson said none of the contractors currently eligible to sell to the program would be disqualified under that requirement. So, while Beef Packers Inc hasn't bid on a school lunch contract since it filled the government's orders during the salmonella recall, it remains eligible to do so.

Finally, more than 8,500 schools did not have their kitchens inspected once during 2008, and another 18,000 only had their kitchens inspected once, despite a requirement in the Child Nutrition Act, which calls for cafeteria inspections at least twice a year in exchange for food under the national school lunch program. Often the schools could not have their kitchens inspected because inspectors were unavailable.

USA Today found many problems with food safety in the mostly un-inspected school kitchens, including a fundamental lack of knowledge of safe handling techniques, lack of proper training and lack of sick days for staff. At one school, a worker who had norovirus, which produces stomach flu symptoms, spread the illness to 52 students and eight faculty members after handling food without gloves while sick.

GAP applauds the efforts of the USDA to toughen the standards for ground beef intended for use in schools. We produced an episode of our television show Whistle Where You Work on school lunch safety earlier this year and believe it is of the utmost importance.

However, fixing issues with ground beef integrity is only one part of keeping kids safe. There is still much work to be done to repair the school lunch system.

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Beth Adelson is a Communications Fellow for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.