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Schools Could Learn Lessons on Food Safety

As Congress and the Obama administration seek new ways to assure the safety of food served to the nation's schoolchildren, the most promising paths are no secret.

Scientists and food safety experts say there are industries and major companies, both in the United States and abroad, that have made great strides in safety and consistently produce food free of the bacteria that sicken about 75 million Americans a year. Can those practices become the rule for the food the government buys for schools?

It has been a decade since the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided that the ground beef it buys for school lunches must meet higher safety standards than ground beef sold to the general public. But those rules, which required that school lunch meat be rejected if it contains certain pathogens, such as salmonella, have fallen behind the standards that fast-food chains and other businesses are adopting on their own.

Moreover, the special protections that the USDA sets for the ground beef it sends to schools do not extend to other products the federal government — or schools themselves — purchase for student meals. No extra testing is required for the spinach, the peanuts or the tortillas served in schools and, sometimes, those products present similar health risks.

Today, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has embraced a different measure for food safety — one that goes beyond pathogen tests and looks at the true toll: how many people get sick. "Until we get the number of food-borne illnesses down to zero, and the number of hospitalizations down to zero, and the number of deaths down to zero, we still have work to do," he said this fall.

The stakes are especially high for schoolchildren with still-developing immune systems. There were more than 470 outbreaks of food-borne illnesses in schools from 1998 through 2007, sickening at least 23,000 children, according to a USA TODAY analysis of data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet the USDA's National School Lunch Program, which provides food to nearly every school district in the country, lacks systems to ensure that students don't get tainted products from poorly vetted suppliers, the newspaper found.

Vilsack has pledged to address the problems, and members of Congress are vowing to do the same as they work to update the Child Nutrition Act, which governs the National School Lunch Program.

Congress has a responsibility "to make certain the foods provided to schools are the safest possible," says Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., the senior Republican on the Senate agriculture committee.

Another committee member, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has introduced a bill requiring new initiatives to ensure that recalled products are removed quickly from school pantries. She and a House counterpart, Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., also are pressing the USDA to stop using school lunch suppliers with poor safety records — and to set standards for school lunch food that mirror those used by fast-food chains and other discriminating companies.

The school lunch program could become the standard-bearer for food safety, says Carol Tucker-Foreman, who oversaw school lunch purchases as assistant undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the Carter administration. She says that instead of buying the cheapest possible food for schoolchildren, as it does now, the government could seek out suppliers that meet high standards and then let them advertise that they have USDA's seal of approval.

Companies could boast that " 'We're qualified to sell to the school lunch program,' " says Tucker-Foreman, now senior fellow at the Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute.

What lessons could the National School Lunch Program learn from the industries, companies and universities that have pioneered breakthroughs in food safety? Among those cited by experts:

It is possible to produce safer food by raising standards without breaking the bank.

McDonald's did it, after a brush with catastrophe.

In 1982, hamburgers from the fast-food chain sickened at least 47 people in Oregon and Michigan. No one died, but the pathogen that caused the severe cramps, abdominal pain and bloody diarrhea turned out to be a little-known, especially dangerous form of the common stomach bacteria E. coli. The new subtype, E. coli O157:H7, produced a toxin that destroyed red blood cells and, in later cases elsewhere, caused kidney failure or death.

Confounded by the discovery, McDonald's hired one of the nation's best-known food safety scientists, Michael Doyle, and told him, he recalls, "to bulletproof their system so E. coli never happened to them again."

McDonald's reconsidered its old assumptions about food — from how often beef-processing plants should test ground beef to how well a hamburger must be cooked to kill off pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella.

The results helped change the industry. For years, the federal food code said burgers had to be cooked only until their internal temperature reached 140 degrees; McDonald's tests showed the safe standard was 155 degrees and that the meat must register that temperature for at least 15 seconds.

Microbial data also altered the demands McDonald's imposed on its suppliers. After a couple of years, the company saw that "about 5% of the suppliers could not get down to what we considered a reasonable level for salmonella and E. coli," says Doyle, now director of the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety. "McDonald's worked hard with them, but they couldn't get there, so McDonald's let them go."

The standards have worked, by all accounts. Seattle-based food safety lawyer Bill Marler, who has been involved in almost all the major food safety lawsuits of the past 15 years, says he hasn't sued McDonald's since 1994 for a company-based E. coli illness and can't think of anyone else who has.

Other fast-food chains, including Jack in the Box and Burger King, have adopted similar practices, USA TODAY found, and many have continued to toughen their standards. As a result, many of those companies now have sampling and testing requirements for ground beef that go beyond the standards USDA set for school lunches in 2000.

At that time, USDA officials feared that their demand for sampling and testing of school meat — and their move to a "zero tolerance" standard for salmonella and E. coli O157:H7 — would drive away the program's suppliers, says Barry Carpenter, who spearheaded the new rules as an official with the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service.

In the beginning, that's what happened: When the agency put its first orders out to bid in the months after the requirement was set, "we didn't get many bids, maybe not any, and the prices were high," says Carpenter, now head of the National Meat Association. "But eventually, one or two companies started bidding. Then, other companies realized, 'Oh, they're bidding at this price and they're making money,' and then we started getting more bids. ... By fall (of 2000), we were getting an adequate supply at a reasonable price."

The lesson, many analysts say, is that organizations with great buying power — such as fast-food chains or the school lunch program — can set higher standards, and industry ultimately will meet those standards because that's where the money is. The school lunch program purchases huge volumes of commodities such as beef, poultry and other staples –– $830 million worth in 2008.

"If you look at the school lunch business, it's a very big business," says Craig Wilson, assistant vice president for quality assurance and food safety at Costco, another company that imposes strict standards on its suppliers. "Could they improve and toughen their specs? Sure they could."

How much would it cost? David Theno, a safety specialist who overhauled Jack in the Box's safety practices in the 1990s, estimates the new requirements there added less than a penny a pound to its beef bills.

Higher food safety standards might not cost anything at all, says Helen Jensen, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. Buyers — at least those big enough to have any clout — often don't pay more for higher standards.

It's not that the buyer says, " 'Here, I've added these extra tests, who wants to pay more for it?' It's more: 'These are the specifications for our product, (and) if you want to sell to us, this is who we'll buy from,' " Jensen says.

You can go only so far with killing pathogens at the processing plant. Eventually, food safety has to reach back to the farm.

European Union members focus on lowering levels of pathogens in animals before they are slaughtered. One much-cited example is Sweden, which has virtually eliminated salmonella in chicken and eggs by requiring the destruction of any flock that tests positive for the disease.

In the United States, the focus has instead been on technological solutions after the harvest — anti-microbial dips, disinfecting sprays and testing.

It's partly a matter of efficiency: There are millions of ranchers and thousands of feedlots where cattle are raised and fattened, but only 50 processing plants. So in terms of the cost-effectiveness of installing safety systems, "the packing plants made the most sense," says Mike Engler, president of Cactus Feeders, a feedlot in Amarillo, Texas. Engler, a biochemist, has chaired the National Cattlemen's Beef Association's beef safety committee.

Produce is different. In the United States, the safety drive recently has shifted to the field and farm — and is furthest along in leafy greens.

Three and a half years ago, an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak tied to spinach from Earthbound Farm killed five people and sickened at least 205, setting off a nationwide recall. Since then, the company in particular and California and Arizona leafy greens growers in general have remade themselves.

Western Growers, which represents the California and Arizona produce industry, estimates that producers lost about $100 million in sales because of the spinach recall. Researchers at Rutgers University's Food Policy Institute found that a majority of consumers stopped buying spinach and that a fifth would not buy other bagged produce, either.

"Industry couldn't wait for the government" to solve the problem, says Wendy Fink-Weber, a spokeswoman for Western Growers. So the growers worked with universities, food safety experts and processors to write new standards that are overseen by the California Department of Food and Agriculture and paid for by the growers.

The standards require bacterial testing of irrigation water, named as a possible source of contamination in federal reports. If test results suggest a problem, the vegetables themselves are tested for E. coli O157:H7 and salmonella. If either is found, the crop cannot be used for human consumption.

"There's a huge cultural shift," says Hank Giclas, Western Growers' vice president for science and technology. So far, 120 California growers and handlers have voluntarily signed on to the standards. Arizona growers worked with their state officials to implement similar standards in September 2007.

Earthbound Farm went even further. The company, based in San Juan Bautista, Calif., also tests all seeds and fertilizers for E. coli O157:H7 and salmonella, then tests both raw and finished product and holds it until the tests come back negative; testing usually takes between 12 and 16 hours.

Will Daniels, Earthbound's vice president in charge of safety, says the new processes add about 3 cents to the cost of a package of baby greens.

California and Arizona together grow 90% of the leafy greens Americans eat, Fink-Weber says — which means that at least some schools already have salad bars operating under these high standards. Safety standards for produce could become even more important when Congress takes up reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act because there's mounting pressure to emphasize fresh fruits and vegetables in schoolkids' diets.

A group of legislators, led by Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., is pushing a bill to require the USDA to increase produce purchases for schools' feeding programs and encourage use of salad bars in schools.

Move faster when trouble erupts.

When Costco learns that one of its suppliers has recalled a product, the members-only retailer does more than pull the item off its shelves. Because its shoppers swipe a customer identification card at checkout, Costco can track anyone who purchased the recalled product, and each of them gets an automated phone call informing them of the recall.

The calls, up to 870,000 per hour, are made immediately after a recall is initiated, arriving in some cases before the official announcement is posted on government websites. And Costco follows up with a written letter to each affected household.

"If I have knowledge (of a recall), I better do something about it ... beyond putting a sticker in the aisle," says Wilson, the company's safety chief.

Costco's use of modern technology is the sort of approach that some experts believe the USDA should adopt when it comes to advising schools about recalls of school lunch products, whether those products were bought by the government or purchased directly by schools themselves.

Earlier this year, an audit by Congress' Government Accountability Office noted that both the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration lack systems for giving schools timely alerts when products such as peanut butter — the focus of a nationwide recall this year — are bought for student meals.

Part of the problem is that commodities purchased through the National School Lunch Program often pass through multiple processors and distributors, and there's no system for tracking specific foods to their final destinations. That undermines efforts to "inform states and school districts which products were produced with recalled foods and which were not," the auditors reported.

In some cases, such problems have led unwitting school officials to serve recalled food, the auditors found, though they could not determine whether any students were sickened as a result.

Gillibrand's bill would require the FDA and the USDA to develop new systems for identifying whether foods implicated in a safety investigation may have been distributed to schools. It also would push the USDA to find ways to alert schools to recalls more quickly and effectively.

Improving the recall system is the first step the government should take to assure the safety of school lunches, says Dora Rivas, head of food and nutrition services for Dallas schools and president of the School Nutrition Association, which represents school meal directors. It is time, she adds, to "bring this system into the digital age."


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