(May 3) WASHINGTON, D.C. — Reports of foodborne illness outbreaks in U.S. schools have increased, according to a congressional watchdog agency, but those findings are being called into question by some involved in the school foodservice sector.

“Our analysis clearly shows an increasing trend,” Lawrence Dyckman, an official with the General Accounting Office, told a joint House-Senate hearing April 30 that examined how lapses in federal oversight had allowed contaminated meals to reach students.

Dyckman said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had recorded 292 instances of food poisoning between 1990 and 1999, affecting approximately 16,000 children. The number of outbreaks, the GAO added, had doubled over the last decade, generally at an average increase of 10% per year.

REPORT CALLED SKEWED

Barry Sackin, staff vice president of public policy for the Alexandria, Va.-based American School Foodservice Association, said the report was skewed.

“Interestingly, it’s my understanding the CDC will be issuing a rebuttal to the GAO testimony, that some of the differences that the GAO reported in terms of the growth of incidences of foodborne illness in schools were a result of improved reporting, as a opposed to food safety,” said Sackin, who also testified at the hearing.

Sackin pointed out that the breadth of the GAO’s study was an important factor in its findings.

“The other thing we included in our testimony, is that the GAO testimony covered a span of 10 years, during which time there were fewer than 300 instances of foodborne illness affecting 16,000 individuals, most of them children,” he said. “What they don’t say is that we served more than 60 billion meals during that time.”

Concerns about cost, rather than safety, have “resulted in school lunches becoming a dumping ground for ground beef and other agricultural products of questionable safety,” Cheryl Roberts of Comer, Ga., told the legislators.

With Roberts was her 15-year-old son, Tyler, who in 1998 suffered kidney failure after eating an undercooked school lunch burger that was contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.

“We care very much about those 16,000 individuals. That young boy at the hearing puts a human face on it,” Sackin said. “But our message is that school meals are safe and will continue to be safe.”

REFORMS ANNOUNCED

Responding to the issue, Bush administration officials announced reforms in the school lunch program, saying they were implementing new rules to give schools more information about the safety of factories that provide student meals.

Industry-backed confidentiality rules block state and county authorities from getting company shipping records so they can trace food and possibly prevent further problems.

And the three federal agencies involved in school food illness outbreaks — the Agriculture Department, the Food and Drug Administration, and the CDC — do not share critical information with one another, said Elsa Murano, the USDA’s undersecretary for food safety, who testified.

“From a policy standpoint, that’s fine, but from a practical standpoint, I don’t know how many (school districts) have the resources or sophistication to take advantage of that level of information access,” Sackin said.

“There are many parts of the country where a school foodservice program has a limited array of distributors and manufacturers they can buy from. Some have no options, so having that information may or may not result in any changes.”

SCHOOLS CAN’T ACCESS INFO

The USDA donates about 17% of school meals to schools through a $5.7 billion program that buys surplus food to help stabilize farm markets. USDA officials routinely use federal inspection and compliance records when they make purchasing decisions.

But local school officials, who buy the rest of the school food on the open market, generally cannot gain access to this safety information about the manufacturers from whom they buy.

Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest testified that federal food safety agencies need authority to order recalls and track food.

“Contaminated food is particularly dangerous to school-aged children, because this population is among those with the highest risk of contracting a serious illness resulting in hospitalization or death,” DeWaal told the lawmakers.

John Bode, an attorney for the National Food Processors Association, an industry group, voiced doubts that changes in the system would do much good.

Bode said the government should permit irradiation of the school food it buys.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 76 million Americans suffer from foodborne illnesses each year, and 5,000 die.

CDC released preliminary data in April that showed substantial drops in rates of illness from six of seven major types of foodborne bacteria from 1996 to 2001.

The rate of E. coli illnesses fell 21%, salmonella 15% and listeria 35%.