New School Lunch Food Safety Rules Coming in July

<"">Food safety issues have long been an issue in this country, especially regarding school lunches and America’s children. Now, said USA Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will launch what are being described as “sweeping safety reforms” considered the most intense in the past ten years.

The goal is to ensure food, especially ground beef, bought for the National School Lunch Program must be “as safe, wholesome and high quality” as the best products in commercial use, said USDA official Craig Morris, speaking to program suppliers at a National Meat Association conference last week, quoted USA Today.

We’ve written that meats supplied to this country’s school lunch program are not always as actively tested for food borne pathogens as some meat used in fast food restaurants. We’ve also been following stories involving outbreaks of Norovirus in schools, including an outbreak that sickened hundreds in a Staten Island school. Now, increased safety standards for federally purchased meat will be imposed and expected to go into effect by July, explained Morris. Other rules are expected for other products bought for the Program—eggs, produce, and poultry meat—said USA Today. The Program feeds about 31 million children daily.

The new standards follow a USA Today investigation in which the news outlet reported that school cafeterias are not vigilantly inspected and people are falling ill as a result. For instance, said USA Today, a high school cafeteria worker sick with a stomach virus one day, returned to work the next day, feeling better but still contagious. She prepared lettuce for lunch—not wearing gloves—and the following day over 50 students and eight faculty fell ill with what appeared to be the same illness as the cafeteria worker, said USA Today. State officials said that Norovirus was to blame and that the food worker was not wearing gloves when she cut the lettuce, probably being contagious for two days following the end of her symptoms.

According to USA Today, despite that many outbreaks originate in cafeterias, over 8,500 schools never had their kitchens inspected in 2008 and 18,000 did not meet mandates—part of the Program—under the Child Nutrition Act, which requires such inspections, occur twice yearly. One mandate requires wearing gloves when preparing school lunches. The investigation revealed, among other issues, broad inexperience among food preparers, that most infections originate with food handlers, rampant inappropriate cleaning practices, and situations in which meat was undercooked.

USA Today looked at inspection reports from schools nationwide and found, among other issues, that an individual in charge of an elementary school cafeteria “did not demonstrate … knowledge of the required temperatures and times for the safe refrigerated storage.” In another, said USA Today, a live rodent was located under a table where food was being prepared and no hot water was available in sinks used in the kitchen for hand washing. Another inspection revealed that old food described as “potentially hazardous” was found in a cooler.

The recently announced USDA reforms are largely concerned with how school lunch foods are tested for Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7, and other pathogens, said USA Today. The agency is scheduled to commission research that includes a National Academy of Sciences study on testing standards, explained USA Today. One rule known to be implemented—testing rules have generally not been set—involves beef used for school lunches, which will be sampled every 15 minutes, a four-fold increase from current mandates, said USA Today, noting that additional bacteria will be included in what will be rejected.

Another change could involve so-called “spent hens,” said USA Today, the older birds rejected by KFC and Campbell Soup, but which have been purchased by the USDA—to the tune of millions of pounds—for America’s school children.

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