Children served by the federal feeding programs risk sicknesses from foodborne illness because of sometimes inadequate notice to school districts about potentially unsafe food, the U.S. Government Accountability Office has said in a special report.


The Sept. 22 report indicated the U.S. Department of Agriculture has failed at times to provide “timely and complete notification about suspect food products provided to schools through the federal commodities program.”


The study said the federal commodity program provides up to 20% of food served in school meals at no cost to the schools.


In particular, the report said USDA failed in recent years to provide complete information to schools about peanut products and canned vegetables that were at the time subject to a limited recall.

Fresh produce typically accounts for less than 3% of USDA commodity purchases for the school lunch program.


The study said some food safety alerts took more than a week for the USDA to communicate, putting at risk school children to potentially tainted food.


In the report, the GAO recommends that USDA improve Food and Nutrition Service notification procedures and instructions on carrying out recalls.


In a statement to the GAO, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the agency had already taken a number of steps to enhance capability regarding recalls.


Those steps include introduction of a Web-based notification system for food recalls, a revision of the agency’s hold and recall procedures and new technical assistance manuals for state agencies and schools.


In addition, Vilsack said the USDA has developed an arrangement with the Department of Education to broadcast a food safety message of significant health concern to schools.


Finally, he said USDA is working on a memorandum to allow sharing of information during an investigation and prior to an official recall that affects USDA-purchased commodities.


“Overall, the goal is to streamline communications among departments, agencies, and state partners to yield a more effective and integrated approach to handling recalls,” he said in the statement.