School Lunches Causing Illness


The beef and poultry served to 27 million school-age children in the United States every day could not be sold or given away unless the meat were clean and safe. Or could it? The U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, which puts its red, white and blue stamp on meat products as the seal of federal approval, is letting down its guard, according to a recent report by the General Accounting Office, or GAO.

Nearly 20 percent of the food that is served in the National School Lunch Program comes from the USDA. However, in 1997 and 1998 (the most recent data available) 17 outbreaks of food-borne illnesses associated with food served in the school-lunch program were reported to the Centers for Disease Control, or CDC. More than 1,600 individuals were affected by the contaminated food in those outbreaks alone. “The USDA, in collaboration with others, removed, replaced or disposed of USDA-donated foods because of the potential for the foods to cause food-borne illness,” reports the GAO. The agency further explains that “five actions involved approximately 1.7 million pounds of strawberries, 556,000 pounds of beef patties, 400,000 pounds of poultry, 25,000 pounds of beef-and-vegetable protein patties, and an unknown quantity of ground beef.”

Based on these data, there is little doubt that contaminated food is being donated to the National School Lunch Program. But many are unclear about why this is occurring. Are there no checks and is there no testing along the way from slaughterhouse to schoolhouse?

“It’s an interesting process,” says Shirley Watkins, undersecretary for food nutrition and consumer services at the USDA. “There are a lot of agencies involved.” The GAO underscores that point in its report. Still, claims Watkins in an interview with Insight, “we haven’t had that many problems, when you consider the number of children we’re feeding and the amount of products we purchase.” Are 1,600 poisonings in 17 major incidents acceptable? “Of course,” says Watkins, “any incident, however small, is big to us. But we try to make sure the procedures are tight and we work closely with all the agencies involved.”

In fact, it is the number of agencies involved that prompted the National Academy of Sciences, or NAS, to suggest in 1998 that the safety of the nation’s food might better be assured by creating a single agency to oversee it. “The food-safety responsibilities are spread between numerous federal agencies with conflicting missions and responsibilities, resulting in uneven coverage and enforcement,” said NAS. Parents should be aware that no one agency is responsible for the safety of school meals.

Under the USDA, the Agricultural Marketing Service is in charge of purchasing meat, poultry, fish and fruits and vegetables, and the Farm Service Agency is responsible for buying other products such as grains, oils, and peanut and dairy products. Additionally, the food donated for schools by the federal government is distributed to state agencies by the Food and Nutrition Services’ Food Distribution Division. The Food Safety and Inspection Service is supposed to make sure that meat, poultry and some eggs and egg products are safe, while the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, is charged with ensuring the safety of all other foods. None of the above agencies have the authority to recall any questionable food, but they are responsible for alerting the public to the manufacturers’ “voluntary” recalls. The NAS reported that ultimately there were 12 federal agencies tasked with food safety.

In a perfect world, a scenario involving an outbreak of food-borne illness in an American school would go something like this: A child becomes ill and a parent suspects the illness is caused by something the child ate at school. After conducting medical tests to determine the cause of the illness, the family physician contacts the school and local health authorities, who may contact state health officials. These officials collect suspect food items and begin an investigation, interviewing school food preparers. Tests are conducted and, if the source of the contaminant is identified, local health-department officials may advise school officials to discontinue the sale of the product.

As the process develops, regional officials of the USDA are notified and, if they are reasonably sure the contaminant is not a result of handling or preparation of the product, it is tracked back through distributors to the manufacturer by the USDA code on the container in which the product was shipped. If the food was donated by the USDA, that agency requests that the product be held until tests are conducted. In the end, should a contaminant be found at the originating plant, the USDA could require the manufacturer to recall some or all of the product.

This, however, is the tip of the iceberg. One of the most glaring problems in this arduous process is that the USDA, according to the GAO report, “lacks comprehensive documentation of safety actions taken for donated food because the Food Distribution Division’s Food Hold Recall Coordinator did not start to record such actions until October 1998.” In other words, the USDA doesn’t keep a database of safety violations by each manufacturer.

In a limited effort to deal with blatant shortcomings within the USDA food-safety process, the GAO made two recommendations: (1) expeditiously develop the proposed Food Distribution Division’s food-safety-action database; and (2) provide information to state or local authorities on safety provisions that could be included in school food-procurement contracts.

Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who requested the GAO study, is concerned about the “serious lack of information about the frequency and seriousness of food-safety problems in the school-meal program.” Says Harkin, “I’ve asked the secretary of agriculture to immediately implement GAO’s recommendations and look into providing more information to school-meals officials about potential bidders’ food-safety records. And I’ve asked the USDA and the Office of Management and Budget, or OMB, to hold off on making proposed reductions in the number of inspections and inspectors until they can justify that the changes are consistent with the need to improve food safety.” Harkin is referring to the administration’s announcement in late March that it would cut back on the number of visits its inspectors make to plants. Currently, inspectors visit each processing plant once a shift. Under the proposed changes, inspectors would visit the plant once daily, concentrating their efforts on plants where the risk for contamination is believed to be greatest. Critics of the changes argue that this puts public health at risk.

That is not an unreasonable suggestion, given that most of the contamination occurs quickly and sporadically during processing procedures, with introduction of E. coli or salmonella more often than not the result of feces splattered on cattle carcasses at the slaughterhouse or contaminated water used to clean poultry.

Most important may be the GAO recommendation to make safety violations publicly available — giving dieticians at school districts the chance to refuse federally donated products from manufacturers with a history of repeated food-safety violations. Few state and local officials know such lists exist, or that they can refuse products from a particular manufacturer. For some, however, the GAO recommendations are only a good beginning.

“The situation is there are no state laws that oversee these meats or poultry,” says William Marler, a Seattle-based attorney who represents victims of food-borne illnesses. “In fact, the states look at it like they’re just lucky to be getting the free food. They think everything is okay because the package is stamped ‘USDA Inspected.’”

That’s not good enough, says Marler. “After seven years of litigating the food-borne illness outbreaks and winning nearly $100 million from the industry, you’d think this would make a difference. Apparently it doesn’t. As a society we tolerate illnesses of our children as a cost of doing business. But I’ve sat in too many intensive-care units where they pulled the plug. The GAO report sort of proudly puts forth that there have only been 17 outbreaks affecting a few thousand people. But if Jack-in-the-Box or McDonalds made that kind of statement we’d all go crazy. The problem is that nobody but the USDA has any idea where the meat comes from. No one: not the governor, the superintendent or the principals. If these officials knew where it was coming from, they’d say you must be kidding. My greatest concern is that there is no one person in the process protecting the kids from what is happening in the plants.

“And what’s really scary is that the CDC believes the number of cases of food-borne illnesses is highly underreported.”