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Increasing Food-Safety Education in Schools Could Reduce Foodborne Illness in Kids

There’s a lack of food-safety education in schools that, if addressed, could help reduce the high rates of foodborne illness among children.

Each year, an estimated 48 million Americans contract a foodborne illness, resulting in 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. Vulnerable populations, including children, seniors, pregnant and postpartum women, and those with compromised immune systems, are at greater risk for foodborne illness.

Because these populations constitute more than half of the American population, educating them about the risks is really important, said Lee Faulconbridge, Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention (CFI) board director, during a presentation alongside the Patricia Buck, CFI’s executive director and director of outreach and education, at the 2014 Consumer Food Safety Education Conference in December.

Many foodborne pathogens have a disproportionate impact on children younger than 5. The incidence of most foodborne pathogens is highest for this demographic. Some die from these preventable illnesses, and many others suffer lasting health problems such as reactive arthritis, the need for kidney transplants, and seizures.

According to a fact sheet about young children and foodborne illness released last November by CFI, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, children face higher risks when exposed to pathogens because their immune systems are less developed and less able to fight infections. And, because they have lower body weights, it takes less of a pathogen to cause an illness.

In order to achieve Healthy People 2020 objectives for most foodborne illnesses, the levels of infections in children need to be reduced because they currently have the highest incidence rates, Buck said. And, she added, in order to get this incidence level down, there has to be more food-safety education in schools and community settings.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducts the School Health Policies and Practices study every six years. The most recent study done in 2012 showed that only half of school districts require teaching about foodborne illness prevention in elementary schools. Just less than 60 percent require the education in middle schools and 64 percent require it in high schools.

The National Extension Association of Family and Consumer Sciences endorses the teaching of food-safety concepts and safe food-handling practices to children of all ages in schools, but there have been decreases in Family and Consumer Sciences courses for middle- and high-school students in recent years.

In 2014, CFI conducted a food-safety survey of educators with the help of the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences. The full results of the survey have yet to be released, but, at the conference, Buck and Faulconbridge shared some of the findings that surprised them.

They said that half of respondents didn’t realize foodborne illnesses are infectious diseases, that many don’t regularly use thermometers, and that only half said they teach food safety multiple times over the course of the year.

Drawing the public’s attention to the long-term impacts of foodborne illness and the fact that it can be passed from person to person would make them “more likely to take action,” Faulconbridge said.

Apart from integrating food safety into the curriculum across math, science, technology, language arts and social studies classes, Buck and Faulconbridge said that schools can highlight food safety in parent-teacher conferences, weekly newsletters, or teacher blogs.

Schools can also insist on hand-washing and hand sanitizer use, display posters on food safety, and encourage science projects or school-TV segments about food safety. And school gardens can help students understand the nutritional value of food and the need to follow safe food practices, they said.

Buck added that there also need to be questions about safe food practices included in CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System. The surveys are used to track trends in certain behaviors such as alcohol use, wearing a seat belt, thoughts of suicide, and dietary behaviors, but not safe food practices.

CFI suspects that teenagers aren’t following food-safety recommendations; however, Buck noted, “You can’t ask for program funding if you have nothing to base your opinion on, so we need this data to show the extent of the problem.”

Overall, the organization believes that local, state and national educators need to make food-safety education a priority in order to help caretakers better understand the health risks that children face with regard to foodborne illness.

In addition, CFI is calling for Congress to consider the need for food-safety education to be incorporated into school nutritional programs when re-authorizing the Child Nutrition Programs in 2015. Including it would help allocate more resources to extension specialists, Buck said.

© Food Safety News
  • John Munsell

    Not only is food safety education, safe food handling, and hygiene education of critical importance, but government disinformation is exacerbating public health considerations. USDA/FSIS claims about the safety of raw meat produced under its highly-heralded HACCP panacea is creating a nation which believes safe food handling is no longer important, or necessary. All raw foods, be it sprouts, tomatoes, peppers, cantaloupe, ground beef, poultry, eggs, etc should be considered as “Risky”, and handled as such. The current FSIS claim of Zero Tolerance for pathogens in raw meat is foolhardy, but it does carry positive PR benefits for the agency. When FSIS introduced HACCP in the 90’s, the agency claimed HACCP to be “Farm to Fork” which ostensibly infers that consumers handling the fork and kitchen protocol must also share their responsibility in the farm-to-fork continuum. FSIS must proactively remind consumers that all raw foods are not guaranteed to be pathogen-free, and should be handled and consumed at the consumers’ risk. Our students should not be fed false assurances about the inherent safety of raw foods, but FSIS policies are doing just that. John Munsell

  • letmejustsay

    Sure, add it to the list. We don’t much else to teach anyway.

  • Dave Walpuck

    I concur. Nice article and response. Thanks. I also think our future food handling children can help decrease the 80 billion lost on foodborne illness each year in the U.S.

  • Alfred

    Anything else schools can do for every little problem facing this devolving country? Every organization with a sudden crisis or issue dumps the matter on teachers and schools to fix it. And why would you want schools to do this anyways? Have you not heard what a miserable failure our public schools are? Why don’t you take your problem down to Wall St. and see what they can do about it?

  • Hands On Classrooms

    Food safety skills are essential for our young people to learn. They key is how to infuse this learning into a classroom setting without overburdening already stretched thin teachers. One way to do that is by incorporating state and national curriculum standards into food safety lessons. Pairing that with engaging and meaningful teacher workshops and offering FREE materials for conducting the lessons. Does something like this already exist? YES! Hands On Classrooms! Check out the website! http://handsonclassrooms.org

  • Johnnie Martin

    If food safety in schools is the focus, why not focus on partnering with national food industry chains (fast-food chains, grocery stores, farms, etc) to work with local schools to educate their “future employees” on food safety starting in kindergarten? And How about creating partnerships with other state and Federal programs like WIC and SSI, so that prior to receiving and upon renewal every recipient had to attend a course in food safety, and again partnerships with food industry companies could use this as a tool for finding new employees and tax write offs? But then again why would anyone want or try solutions that aren’t dependent on the federal government, and all the US tax dollars supporting it?