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School Kids Chowing Down on Healthier Foods, But Who Are the Food Safety Cops?

The good news for kids this year is that they’re getting healthier foods in the meals they eat at school, thanks to new USDA standards that include a call for more servings of fruit and vegetables, some of which will likely be fresh produce from local farms.

But with recent media reports peppered with stories about fresh produce such as cantaloupes, mangoes and lettuce (from specific farms and distributors) being recalled due to outbreaks of foodborne illnesses and three deaths from contaminated cantaloupes, this question comes to mind: Who are the food-safety cops and what are they doing to keep school kids safe from foodborne illnesses such as E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria and Campylobacter?

That’s especially important when it comes to food being served to children. According to the World Health Organization, young children are at more risk for foodborne diseases because their immune systems are still developing and the protection afforded by resident gut flora is not as effective as it is in adults. In addition, children consume more food in proportion to their weight than adults, which means they absorb more toxins and contaminants that cause foodborne illnesses. Then, too, foodborne illnesses are often more severe in children than in healthy adults.

How do we get there?

As a starter, each school site that participates in the National School Lunch and National School Breakfast programs is required to go through two food safety inspections annually, conducted by a state or local governmental agency. USDA also requires all schools to have a coordinated approach to food safety based based on a preventive program, Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points, which is designed to ferret out problems where they are likely to occur.

In addition, schools — and the foods served in them — are subject to the same federal, state and local regulations that protect the food offered in all retail establishments, such as grocery stores, restaurants and hospitals.

Then, too, most states and school districts have additional food safety safeguards in place, such as providing training for staff, requiring food-safety certifications and having additional food safety requirements for foods purchased commercially.

But when all is said and done, it turns out that USDA’s requirements for more servings of healthy foods don’t come with a detailed road map for the safety of foods purchased from farms, although federal and state governments do provide plenty of guidance to help school districts find their way. That leaves school districts across the country tasked with the responsibility of deciding what policies they need to adopt.

In Washington state, Fred Berman, a food safety official for the state’s Agriculture Department, told Food Safety News that each school district sets its own food safety standards for buying food from farms. Some require no product liability insurance coverage while others require up to $5 million before a farmer can do business with them. Some require good agricultural practices (GAPs) certification while others do not. Some require a third party certifier but most do not.

“In other words,” Berman said, “food safety isn’t always their number one concern but rather, a safe food supply is assumed (as a requirement).”

Berman’s colleague, Tricia Kovacs, who has been working with small- and mid-sized farms to help them improve food safety practices, said that food safety is “a strong concern” for schools.

“There are no requirements for food safety certification of produce for school meals,” she told Food Safety News, “but it is a national topic and most are discussing it relation to USDA’s Good Agricultural Practices.”

These standards are based on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s “Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables” and are generally recognized as the best practices to prevent microbial contamination of fruits and vegetables. They range from providing proper handwashing facilities for farmworkers to regular testing of the water used to irrigate and wash the crops to ensure that the water doesn’t contain harmful bacteria.

Kovacs says school districts are seeking guidance about what they should require, and many are considering GAPs or are using questionnaires or otherwise asking farmers about their on-farm food safety practices.

But she also says the state recognizes that qualifying for GAPs certification can be a challenge for small- and mid-sized farms. With that in mind, it has launched a project called “Bridging the GAPs,” which is funded by a USDA Specialty Crop block grant. This project helps participating growers find cost-effective ways to meet food-safety standard on their farms and also to work closely with state food-safety auditors.

The state currently has 200 to 240 farms with a successful USDA GAPs audit. Many are onion or potato farms, but Kovacs said that more fruit and vegetable growers are getting the audits or looking into doing so.

“We see more apples, cherries, berries and diversified row crops on the list now,” she said.

In the case of potatoes, Kovacs said that many spud farmers saw the wisdom of becoming GAPs certified because their buyers were requiring it. That push from the buyers is consistent for many farmers across the nation.

Southwest Washington blueberry grower Nik Pitharoulis, owner of Black River Blues Blueberry Farm is a good example of that. His blueberry operation is GAPs certified, which is a requirement of one of his customers, the Rochester School District. The farm’s blueberries are served every week in the district’s elementary school breakfasts and twice a week at lunch.

In Skagit County, Washington, Georgia Johnson, food service manager for the La Conner School District, which has 700 students — 450 of whom qualify for reduced or free lunches — is no newcomer to getting fresh fruits and vegetables into kids’ meals. Newly hired in her current position in 2004, she introduced a salad bar to the lunchroom. She also makes sure the kids are getting at least three fresh fruits and two raw veggies each week in their lunches.

When asked how she determines if the farms she buys from are following strict enough food-safety standards, she told Food Safety News that she takes a tour of the farms before
buying anything from them. She’s currently buying from five farms.

“I want to have a personal connection with the farmers,” she said.

She also asks the farmers if they feed the food they grow to their own families, a question that she believes reveals how safe they think their food is.

But she conceded that based on trust, she “assumes” that the water they’re washing the produce with is from a source that’s been tested for cleanliness and free of harmful bacteria. Likewise, she assumes that the farmers are keeping the produce at the right temperatures from harvest through pickup because when she picks it up, it’s always in the cooler.

She readily admits that it would be helpful to learn more about the food safety practices the farmers are using. For example, what water they’re using for irrigation.

“I’ll be asking more specific questions,” she said. “I know that it’s got to start at the very beginning, with the soil.”

In the works at her school district, she said, is the requirement that farms that sell to the district fill out paperwork about how their food is grown, harvested and processed.

In California, Stephanie Enright, child nutrition consultant with the state’s Department of Education, said that prior to being approved for the national breakfast and lunch programs, schools must provide a copy of their health permit to the California Department of Education.

In addition, every school is required to have a food safety program in place to minimize the risk of foodborne illnesses.

Carol Chase Huegli, nutrition education administrator for the state’s Department of Education, said that a key goal in Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Toriakson’s initiative, Team California for Healthy Kids, is offering students fresh foods and buying them locally when possible.

Nutrition education consultant Elizabeth Moreno, also with the state’s Department of Education, said that school districts in the state use purchasing specifications that ensure safety and traceability of fresh produce.

“When districts purchase directly from local farmers, they look for documentation that good agricultural practices and good handling practices are being used,” she said.

In addition, districts also have procedures in place when they receive fresh produce, including checking the condition of the fresh produce and the transportation vehicles used to bring the produce to the schools to make sure certain food safety specifications are being met.

Ronald Owens, spokesman for the state’s Department of Public Health, told Food Safety News that there are currently no regulations that set forth requirements for small farming operations or for community or school gardens intending to provide food to schools.

But on the permitting front, local health departments are the primary permitting and inspection agencies for school cafeterias.

Owens said that schools should work with their local health departments to ensure they are obtaining foods from approved sources and that produce growers are following good agricultural practices designed to protect the foods they produce from potential sources of contamination.

What about food-service distributors?

Sysco is a good example of a food service distributor that puts the focus on food safety. As such, it requires that all the farms from which it sources ready-to-eat produce be GAPs certified. Such produce includes, but is not limited to, lettuce, broccoli, celery, tomatoes, grapes, herbs, green onions, bell peppers and berries.

“It (GAPs certification) puts more teeth into it,” said Pat Cipolla, director of produce marketing for Sysco Kansas City, referring to USDA’s food safety guidance for schools. “You can’t get safe enough.”

Saying that all food should be as safe as possible for everyone, Cipolla, nevertheless, puts kids in a special category.

“We have to look out for the kids,” he said. “They don’t know enough about food safety to do it for themselves. We can help out by helping the schools choose the right things.”

He told Food Safety News that he always talks about food safety first when he meets with potential customers or farmers who want to sell to Sysco.

“That’s more important than anything,” he said. “Food can be the best quality but if it isn’t safe, then nothing else matters.”

Sysco Kansas City’s main supplier of locally grown food is a Mennonite community in Rich Hill, Missouri. Cipolla said it is believed to be the first Mennonite grower community in the country to be GAPs certified. Some of the Amish farms in the region that sell to Sysco are also GAPs certified.

As steeped in traditional ways as they may be — the Amish use horses for farming and transportation, for example — Cipolla said that “they understand the direction food safety is going.”

He refers to Diana Endicott, who, with her husband Gary, raises cattle and chickens and owns and operates a USDA federally inspected processing plant, as the “catalyst” for GAPs certification.

Endicott is also at the helm of Good Natured Family Farms, an alliance of more than 150 local farms and small businesses working together to supply the Kansas City metro area with fresh food from within a 200-mile radius.

Teaming up with the farms in the alliance, Sysco, and the USDA, Endicott took on the challenge of helping guide participating farmers towards GAPs certification. Some of that involved setting up training sessions, providing manuals and visiting the farms. Endicott describes it as an ongoing process with several goals for food safety improvement chosen each year. She also said that the farmers see it as “their program” and that it involves the entire farm.

As the owner and operator of a meat processing plant, Endicott came to this endeavor with a head start since the plant must meet USDA’s food safety standards.

Endicott told Food Safety News that the farms that became GAPs certified did so in large part because they had the opportunity to sell to Sysco. That represented a good business opportunity for them because some of them — the Mennonite and Amish farms with more than a combined 400 acres, for example — were producing a lot of food.

“The buyer was mandating it,” she said. “It has to be driven by the buyer. When it is, the farmer will rise to the occasion.”

With Good Natured Family Farms promoting eating fresh — and with Sysco seeing growing demand for locally grown food — Endicott says it’s obvious that farms are going to have to have food safety plans in place when selling to schools.

“It’s not like before when a farmer would take some carrots to a school cook,” she said. “We’re looking at a lot of food being redistributed, and there have to be some food safety standards. If you want to supply schools, you’re going to have to do it. You need to for your own self-assurance and for your livelihood.”

She also pointed out that should there be a foodborne illness outbreak caused by locally grown food served at a school, small- and mid-sized farms everywhere will see their credibility questioned.

“We need to be cautious,” she said. “We’re representing small farms across the country. Just one accident can diminish the trust buyers have in all of us.”

She sings the praises of the USDA in helping farms come up with ways they can become GAPs certified.

“If you’re willing to put the time and energy into this, they’re here to guide you,” she said. When asked about small- and mid-sized farmers who are worried about the expense and time of becoming GAPs certified, Endicott’s advice is to get a copy of USDA’s GAPs checklist.

“Do a self-audit,” she said. “Put it all down in a notebook. Maybe you can’t afford to get certified, but at least you’ll be able to show good intent.”

She also advises farmers to look at Cornell University’s “Food Safety Begins on the Farm,” an information-packed publication for fruit and vegetable growers.

What about USDA?

USDA foods, which are the foods purchased and distributed by USDA to state agencies, which further distribute them to schools, make up about 15 to 20 percent of what is served in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), according to information supplied by the USDA.

Also according to the USDA, the remaining 80 to 85 percent of foods served in the NSLP are purchased by schools commercially. State agencies that administer the NSLP and individual school districts may have specific food safety requirements for commercial purchases. Many jurisdictions have additional requirements, but some do not.

The agency’s Food and Nutrition Service provides training on best practices for safely purchasing and handling fresh produce to help state agencies and school districts. Go here for some of the training sources.

The USDA also provides ongoing technical assistance and training through the National Food Service Management Institute. It has also established the Center of Excellence for Food Safety Research in Child Nutrition at Kansas State University.

Coming Soon to a School Near You

October has been proclaimed National Farm to School Month. Go here for more information about the connections that are happening all over the country between schools and local food.

© Food Safety News
  • Ted

    Blind trust will see us through. Trust in trust for pity’s sake. Besides, it’s only a little diarrhea and it usually clears up after only a few days. Trust, pay, enjoy, pay again. All natural, no? Don’t need no stinking food safety rules.

  • husna aijaz

    From my personal experience at a school district in California, there are no adequate “Food Safety program in place to minimize the risk of food borne illness”. HACCP and twice a year mandated inspections required by the law are also missing in some cases when foods are served to children within the school setting. I have addressed Food Safety issues several times, however, they have been ignored or I am told they will be taken “into consideration”.
    I am not surprised from the article about the lack of certain Food Safety measures that schools are taking. “Asking farmers about their food safety practices” without conducting third party audits,and additionally feeding those local” healthy” produce to our children spells disaster. Farm to School initiatives can only be successful if GAP regulations are in place!
    So, my question to the concerned responsible party is, ” when the once a year health permit is submitted to the State Department of Education for Federal funds in relation to School Nutrition, doesn’t the State/USDA review the inspection reports prepared by the local health department inspectors before funds are disimbursed?”. Have schools submitted twice a year inspection reports in the past five years?

  • Matt

    When I ask if the farmer eats this stuff and am told “no, but those hogs over there broke loose last night and ate a bunch of it; they didn’t seem to get too sick”, should I
    A) immediately whip out my cash and pay before another yuppie gourmet beats me to it
    B) hesitate long enough to think of the poor innocent kids
    C) run, run like the wind

  • Dr. Lisa McGreggor

    There are no testing requirement (no Cops)for school lunches! GAPS are great but without testing, how do you know if they work or are appropriate? How many of the school buyers know anything about agriculture or microbiology to know what to look for? Very few! Basically, our kids are at risk. Its only a matter of time before a foodborn outbreak is tied to a salad bar at a school. It will take Bill Marler suing the school before a thing is done. I would advocate that this is another reason USDA’s Microbiological Data Program should be funded and then charged with testing foods going into the school lunch program.