Accountability

Published — May 5, 2011 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

USDA is inconsistent in testing food headed for school cafeterias

Lunch offerings at a Washington state elementary school. John Foschauer/AP

Introduction

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s school meal program scores an A-plus for its strict safety standards for raw beef, but it gets sub-par grades for not testing other foods with the same scrutiny, even those that have caused foodborne illness outbreaks.

The school meal program provides a variety of foods to schools for free, such as raw ground beef, cheese, poultry and fresh produce. Since children are more susceptible to complications from foodborne illness, the program has taken steps to reduce contamination and in some cases, applies stricter safety standards than the commercial industry.

The USDA’s school meal program helps provide low-cost or free meals to more than 30 million children a day at over 100,000 schools. In recent years, the USDA has purchased over $1 billion worth of food annually that it offers free to schools.

Program officials told the Government Accountability Office they selected products for stringent food safety specifications based on their view of the risk associated with different foods. But the GAO also found that these specifications were made through an informal process, consulting with a variety of experts, which the USDA failed to document.

“Questions remain regarding whether the program has identified the foods and pathogens that present the highest risks to the populations the program serves,” the GAO report said.

The program revised its standards for purchasing raw beef in 2010 after heavy criticism that its purchasing specifications were not as strict as those for large-scale purchasers at fast-food restaurants. As a result, the program will not purchase ground beef that tests positive for Salmonella bacteria, while federal regulations tolerate the presence of a small amount of Salmonella. The commodity program also rejects all raw boneless or ground beef that tests positive for E. coli O157:H7, while USDA regulations allow such beef to be sold if it is cooked first.

The school meal program does extra testing for pathogens and bacteria in cooked, diced chicken, but not for other ready-to-eat meat and poultry products, like cubed ham and smoked turkey breast. Representatives of a large food distributor said ready-to-eat meat and poultry products are their biggest food safety concern aside from raw meat and poultry.

The USDA’s commodity program also applies stricter purchasing specifications for some of its fresh produce, but not those associated with foodborne illness and outbreaks. The commodity program applies stricter screening for microbial contamination with sliced apples and baby carrots, which carry relatively low risks of contamination.

The Department of Defense, meanwhile, purchases the majority of the fresh produce distributed to schools in the program and follows federal regulations that do not require any microbial testing. The Pentagon purchases and distributes produce like broccoli, celery, grapes, lettuce, and spinach, many of which have been associated with foodborne illness outbreaks in recent years.

For example, the 2006 E. coli outbreak in bagged spinach sickened 238 people, killed five and cost the industry about $80 million in lost sales.

In addition, the school meal program has not addressed recently recognized pathogens that are known to cause illness. Public health officials have shown that at least six strains of E. coli produce the same dangers as the most virulent E. coli O157:H7. Federal regulatory agencies are considering actions to address them and some food companies have even begun testing for these additional strains of E. coli.

Tainted food continues to plague the food supply. Last month, Jennie-O Turkey recalled 54,960 pounds of frozen and raw turkey products after Salmonella cases appeared. Del Monte recalled 5,000 cartons on cantaloupes for similar fears. There have also been recalls for bologna, cheese, hazelnuts and smoked meats out of E. coli concerns this year.

Tony Corbo, a legislative representative at the advocacy group Food & Water Watch, said part of the problem with food safety begins when it is not the primary role of a government agency.

“Their (USDA) main mission is not food safety and that’s where some of the problems crop up,” Corbo said. “You sometimes hear of situations where there is a surplus, say a surplus of peaches, so they’re [USDA] directed to go out and buy the surplus to help the prices. So their main mission is to promote agriculture and make sure prices are adequate for farmers.”

Corbo said food would be safer if the process included a risk analysis of pathogens and measures required of vendors to deal with them.

FAST FACT: USDA provides about 15 to 20 percent of the food served in school meals. Schools purchase the remainder of their food directly from manufacturers or through contracts with food service companies.

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