Poison in our Schools?
Last week the Washington State Supreme Court affirmed a Jury’s verdict of $4.75 million against a small, rural School District for undercooking hamburger that was contaminated with the deadly pathogen, E. coli O157:H7 and was served to elementary students for lunch in the Fall of 1998. Justice for these children, one who suffered severe kidney failure, was long in coming. The big issue is not the money, no matter how well deserved. The issue is that the contaminated meat was sent to the school through the National School Lunch Program by the same Governmental agency supposedly responsible for meat safety – the USDA.
The National School Lunch Program feeds over 25 million children in over 93,000 schools in the Untied States with a budget of over $5 billion. However, is the food safe? Is the raw material prepared properly? Is there poison in our schools? According to the General Accounting Office (GAO) in a study published in 2003, the answers to those questions are a resounding - maybe. The GAO found that between 1990 and 1999, 195 outbreaks of foodborne illnesses occurred in our schools, sickening thousands of children.
The GAO study shows that half of school-related outbreaks were caused by poor preparation techniques by foodservice workers - like those that cost a School District $4.75 million. Interestingly, the remaining outbreaks were caused by unknown reasons or by contaminated raw material. In one instance, three dozen students and three teachers were poisoned by USDA chicken contaminated with ammonia that leaked from refrigeration lines while the chicken was being stored. Health officials found that the tainted chicken showed ammonia levels 133 times the acceptable level. Fortunately, these grade-school children were not severely injured. But criminal charges are pending against Illinois school officials who knowingly allowed the USDA contaminated chicken to be used in the schools. Unclear as yet is the knowledge that the USDA itself had of the contaminated chicken before it was shipped to School Districts in the Chicago area in the fall of 2002.
Food safety concerns are not confined to the cafeteria. Contaminated foods have also been linked to school-sponsored special events, lunches brought from home and food prepared and served in the classroom. One outbreak in North Carolina involved a teacher who brought unpasteurized butter that was contaminated by E. coli O157:H7 to school. Over 50 children were sickened, two suffered kidney failure.
Do we stop feeding our kids?
Do we stop bake sales and special events?
Absolutely not. For some of our children, a hot school lunch may be one of the best meals of the day. According to the USDA, more that 15 million low-income children receive a free or reduced-price lunch daily. We can not afford to reduce this support for fear of litigation.
So, what do we do to feed our kids safely?
Start at the source.
First, we must require the USDA and FDA to publish online all inspection reports, recall notices, and violations of food safety standards for every plant that supplies food to our schools. This will give parents and school administrators a powerful tool in learning the quality of food being served to the children.
Second, we must require the USDA to purchase only product from plants and suppliers that meet the highest safety standards.
Third, we need to consider serving both precooked and irradiated product in school lunches.
Fourth, State and local School administrators and Boards must make food safety one of their top priorities. The training, certification, and promoting of key food service personnel may be expensive, but the cost is a lot less than the risk of ill children and a jury verdict.
Finally, Educate students, faculty and parents on safe food handling practices.
A comprehensive and cost effective approach to food safety protects our kids and protects a school’s budget.
About the author: William Marler is managing partner of Marler Clark, the Seattle law firm nationally recognized for its representation of foodborne illness victims and for its advocacy for food safety. He represented Brianne Kiner in her $15.6 million E. coli settlement with Jack in the Box in 1993. In 1998, Marler Clark resolved the Odwalla Juice E. coli outbreak for the five families whose children developed HUS and were severely injured after consuming contaminated apple juice for $12 million. The firm recently secured a $4.75 million verdict against a School District in an E. coli contamination case. The partners at Marler Clark also speak frequently on issues of safe food and have formed OutBreak, Inc., a non-profit business dedicated to training companies on how to avoid foodborne diseases.