Bill to Boost School Food Safety


OLYMPIA - There is a lot of talk about school safety in the Legislature, but two bills recently passed in the Senate are aimed at protecting students' health. Bills on how schools handle meat and pesticides unanimously passed the Senate but could be up for changes in the House.

Bill Marler, a Seattle lawyer who primarily represents children and families in cases of food-borne illness, is pushing a school-lunch measure he hopes will decrease the risk of bacterial poisonings.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, would require the state Board of Health to set minimum food-safety and sanitation standards for school kitchen workers. The bill passed the Senate unanimously.

Meat is delivered to many school districts via the National School Lunch Program, created nearly 50 years ago to make sure all public-school students got healthy lunches. The program provided meals for more than 26 million students in 1998.

The meat comes from packaging plants around the nation. While that product is usually safe, Marler said bad meat results in thousands of illnesses each year. Although Marler said McAuliffe's bill is a step in the right direction, he would like to see it amended. First, he said the state Superintendent of Public Instruction should be required to negotiate with the National School Lunch Program for only the highest-quality meat.

While this may be slightly more expensive, he said the cost would be outweighed by increased safety. Marler is also recommending tougher certification for school kitchen staff and more frequent inspections of school kitchens. Rep. Dave Quall, D-Mount Vernon, co-chairman of the House Education committee, said he hadn't seen Marler's proposed amendments but is willing to take a look at them.

"We don't want to be too nonchalant on the food handlers in our schools," Quall said. Also passed unanimously by the Senate and now in the House is a bill that would require schools notify parents and students when any pesticide is to be used on school property. "It's wonderful that both Democrats and Republicans acknowledge that pesticides can hurt kids," said Erika Schreder, staff scientist with the Washington Toxics Coalition.

When pesticides are used outside a school, the only notice usually consists of a few small flags. When spraying indoors, no notification is required. Substitute Senate Bill 6479, also introduced by McAuliffe, would require written notice to students, parents and employees at least 48 hours before application. In addition, signs would be posted with the applicator's name and telephone number. The House considered a similar bill earlier this session.

However, proponents withdrew their support after proposed amendments would have "gutted" the bill, Schreder said. Schreder said she fears the House Agriculture and Ecology committee may take the same tactic with this bill, which was scheduled to be heard Thursday. Rep. Gary Chandler, R-Moses Lake, co-chairman of the committee, called the bill "an unfunded mandate" and said he thinks this is an issue for local school boards.