Congressman Joe Sestak (D-PA) recently announced his intention to introduce legislation aimed at improving the safety of food served to the 31 million children under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National School Lunch Program.

school-lunch-featured.jpgRep. Sestak’s bill would streamline communications between federal oversight agencies, ensure proper food testing, and implement a more pointed food recall notification protocol for schools.

The bill is a companion to legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), the New York Senator who has made a name for herself in the food community by persistently calling on the federal government to improve food safety.  Both bills came in response to a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) revealing the numerous problems in coordinating and communicating recall efforts to schools. Together, the bills “would ensure proper food testing, resolve communication issues regarding product holds and recalls, and implement a systemic quality check of the measures’ effectiveness,” Rep. Sestak said in a news release.

According to the GAO, the USDA has not been meeting industry standards of safety. The report cited specific problems with communication amongst branches, inadequate or delayed warnings and warning delivery systems, and incomplete instructions for disposing of recalled foods. “We have reported that this fragmented federal structure has caused inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination and inefficient use of resources,” the report concluded.

In addition to the GAO report, a USA Today investigation found that private industry standards far exceed government standards, testing their meat five to 10 times more often than the USDA tests beef made for schools during a typical production day. Moreover, the investigation found that fast food restaurants, such as Jack-In-The-Box, set limits on the bacteria in their beef that are up to ten times more stringent than those set by the USDA.    

“Parents should not have to worry about the food their children are served at school,” Rep. Sestak said. “But today, because of poor communication and testing that would not be acceptable for any restaurant, our children’s safety is at risk. We need to do more to protect our children’s health.”

Rep. Sestak’s legislation would direct the USDA to:

  • Study private industry food safety standards and implement testing and other safety procedures in line with private standards.
  • Develop guidelines in consultations with Agricultural Marketing Service and Farm Service Agency to help determine whether to institute an administrative hold on suspect commodities for school meal programs;
  • Work with states to explore ways for states to speed notification to schools;
  • Improve timelines and completeness of direct communication between the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) and schools about holds and recalls, such as through the commodity alert system;
  • Establish a time frame in which it will improve the USDA commodity hold and recall procedures to address the role of processors and determine distributors’ involvement with processed products, which may contain recalled ingredients, to provide faster and more comprehensive information to schools;
  • Provide states with more specific instructions for schools to dispose of recalled commodities and obtain timely reimbursements;
  • Institute a systematic quality check procedure to ensure FNS holds on foods and products used by schools are carried out effectively; and
  • Direct the Food Service Inspection Service to revise its procedures to ensure that schools are included in effectiveness checks.