(April 26) WASHINGTON, D.C. — Congress, already dealing with a variety of food-security issues in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, will turn its attention to the safety of food served to schoolchildren at a hearing it has scheduled April 30 in Washington.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., announced April 15 that lawmakers would hold the hearing after a story that the Chicago Tribune published in December reported unsafe practices in the facilities that make school meals and in the kitchens and cafeterias where they are warmed and served.

The series “raised issues that have to be addressed,” Durbin told the Tribune. “We want to examine how we can improve the federal oversight of the food served to schoolchildren.”

The hearing, with the Senate government oversight committee and the House Subcommittee on Government Efficiency, will focus on the frequency and types of illness outbreaks from school food and the ability of government health agencies to protect children from contamination, Durbin said.

School food illness outbreaks have become increasingly frequent across the country during the 1990s, the newspaper reported. More and more school districts — especially in poor areas — are turning to private contractors to plan menus, order food and oversee kitchens and cafeterias. But the contractors often do not disclose where they are getting their food and rarely provide inspection reports on those plants.

“I can’t speak for Mr. Durbin’s office, and statistics are wonderful things, but if you go from two to three you have a 50% increase, and 200 to 201 is a negligible increase,” said Barry Sackin, staff vice president of public policy for the Alexandria, Va.-based American School Foodservice Association, which will provide testimony at the hearing.

Sackin added that a General Accounting Office study conducted in 1997-99 and released in February 2000 found school food to be safe.

“They reported that there were 20 cases of foodborne illnesses in schools, only eight of which were tracked to school foodservice,” Sackin said.

Of about 13 billion meals served in schools during that two-year period, Sackin said, 1,609 children reported illnesses.

“That includes that window that included the notorious strawberry problem,” he said, referring to the illegal sale of frozen Mexican strawberries that sickened 175 schoolchildren and teachers in Michigan with hepatitis in March 1997.

“The numbers certainly say we're doing a great job,” Sackin said.

CALLED FLIMSY SAFEGUARD

The Tribune noted that when school lunch suppliers deliver contaminated meals, the federal government’s recall system offers a flimsy safeguard for children.

Industry-backed confidentiality rules block state and county authorities from getting company shipping records so they can trace the food and protect children from further harm. The three key federal agencies involved in school and food illness outbreaks — the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — do not share critical information with each other.

“The question about food safety is a legitimate concern, and food safety is of paramount importance,” said Elizabeth Pivonka, president of the Wilmington, Del.-based Produce for Better Health Foundation, which is active in efforts to include more fresh produce in student meals. “There are ways fruits and vegetables can fit in that scheme. What is the best way children can eat fruits and vegetables in the safest way possible?”

Integration and consistency in handling practices are required to eliminate any problems, Sackin said.

“The bottom line, or the front line, on food safety is and always will be food handling and preparation,” Sackin said. “One of our concerns on food safety is, you can do everything you want on bringing safe products into the school, but if it’s not handled properly, it doesn’t matter what comes in.”

SAFETY STRESSED

Association members stress safety procedures, Sackin said.

“Of our 57,000 members, over half are certified, which includes having taken food safety training programs,” he said. “You still have to do the job right.”

School district foodservice managers acknowledge that they are more vigilant about safeguarding their food supply because commodities originate in a variety of growing regions.

“The incidence of foodborne illness is much higher than 10-15 years ago, but I don’t think the incidence in schools is any higher than in any other foodservice industry,” said Diane Smith, foodservice director for the Shawnee Mission School District in Overland Park, Kan., a suburb of Kansas City. “We get grapes from Chile throughout the winter. We don’t really know what those products have on them.”

That food safety has attracted more news coverage in recent years also has contributed to the perception that there are more problems, Smith said.

“I think people are just a lot more in tune with foodborne illness,” she said. “I think it’s more people being more informed, and it’s happening more overall in the foodservice industry, and consequently we think it’s happening more in school foodservice. It’s probably less in school foodservice.”

Durbin said that schools should be informed of the identities and safety records of factories that provide food to students, adding that school officials should be more quickly and effectively involved in recalls of tainted food.

CALL FOR FEDERAL ACTION

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, has called for federal agencies to assume responsibility for mandating comprehensive food recalls, rather than relying on voluntary recalls. The agency also wants Congress to address the need for a seamless and sweeping inspection system.

Smith said that her department takes no chances and cited a recent incident with a water main break as an example.

“Last Thursday (April 18), we had 16 schools with no water and another 17 that had a boil order,” she said. “I had fresh strawberries on that day’s menu. They had washed the strawberries before the boil order and we had to pitch the strawberries. That’s how safe we have to be.”

Training of all employees is comprehensive, Smith added.

“We do everything possible, absolutely, to keep our food supply and my employees as safe and sanitary as possible,” she said. “We do lots of in-service (training) on food safety and sanitation. We check temperatures in all the kitchens constantly. They have to have the beginning temperature of the first serving line and the ending temperature of the last serving line (constant), and they’re checking temperatures all day.”

Sackin said that at the hearing, his association would stress the importance of funding for upgrades in school foodservice facilities as requisite to safety.

“When schools have remodeling dollars, they tend to look at classrooms and other student areas,” Sackin said. “But we tend not to be the top priority. They need to help school foodservice people invest and repair facilities, and bring modern energy-saving equipment facilities in to augment food-safety training.”