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GAO: School Lunch Safety Needs Upgrade

Federal agencies do not do enough to ensure the safety of school lunches according to a new report released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) yesterday. 

The report found that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), which oversees the federal school meals program, “did not always ensure that states and schools received timely and complete notification” when there was a suspected food safety problem.

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As the report notes, “It is especially important that recalls affecting schools be carried out efficiently and effectively because young children have a higher risk of complications from foodborne illnesses.”

The GAO findings show a slow and cumbersome federal response to dangerous recalled products.

The report found that it sometimes took schools a week or more to determine what products were subject to a recall, during which time they unknowingly served recalled products. 

The GAO points out that while widespread foodborne illness outbreaks in the lunch program have been averted–no children were sickened in recent beef or peanut recall, from school lunches–the likelihood that schoolchildren did consume these tainted products, “raises overall concerns about the safety of food served in schools and the welfare of schoolchildren.”

According to the GAO, neither the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), nor the USDA have adequate mechanisms in place to assure that recalls are carried out to completion in schools.

In response to its findings, the GAO offered a slew of recommendations. Among them, establishing better interagency coordination, so that when the FDA is investigating a commodity that may be involved in the the USDA school meal program it will keep FNS in the loop. 

The GAO also recommended that the Secretary of Agriculture direct FNS to improve direct communication between the service and the schools about holds and recalls.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack responded to the audit in a written statement in which he emphasized the importance of safety in school meals and said the department is working on a system to get advance warning from FDA on any foodborne illness investigations. 

Vilsack also pledged to improve communication between the department, states, and the schools they serve “to yield a more effective and integrated approach to handling recalls.”

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