After a series of USA Today exposes in 2009 found staggering gaps in school food safety, many in food policy circles thought food safety would be addressed in the Child Nutrition Act (CNA) reauthorization process this year.

USA Today found the leading fast food companies had higher food safety standards than the Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS), which purchases food for the school lunch program. The paper found that over 26,000 schools weren’t receiving frequent inspections and a series of Freedom of Information Act requests called into serious question whether AMS was taking adequate precautions to keep contaminated meat out of schools.

The New York Times also caused alarm when it published a story shedding light on a little-known but widely-used ammonia processing technique for ground beef. The Times questioned the safety and efficacy of the process and pointed out that the processed beef is commonly purchased by the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and fast food chains.

In addition to media investigations, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent government watchdog, found that federal agencies do not do enough to ensure the safety of school lunches. The report, published in September, showed a slow and cumbersome federal response to dangerous recalled products. According to the GAO, 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.

In February, we reported that two school districts in California had served recalled meat and USA Today reported that hundreds of schools received recalled meat in early to mid-March.

Food safety expectations

With all of the headlines, increased public awareness, and Congressional attention (See: School Food Safety Legislation Introduced in House) all signs pointed to some food safety language making it into the reauthorization.

The School Nutrition Association (SNA) told Food Safety News in January the group anticipated food safety would be addressed during the reauthorization process. “SNA has been calling on USDA to improve communication between the federal government and schools when food safety hazards occur,” said SNA spokeswoman Diane Pratt-Heavner.

But, the reauthorization bill that was unanimously approved by the Senate Agriculture Committee last week, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, ended up containing only “very minor” food safety provisions, according to Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) food safety attorney Sarah Klein. The bill extends HACCP requirements to the entire school campus and extends the requirement for food safety audits through 2010.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), however, did succeed in getting some stronger language added to the managers amendment to improve recall procedures and recall effectiveness checks.

“We’re thrilled to see food safety addressed in the Senate bill, and appreciate all Senator Gillibrand’s hard work on making food safety in schools a top priority,” said Klein.  But Klein and other food safety advocates are pushing to get even stronger, more specific language added to the final bill, including:
A rapid alert system to notify schools immediately when a food they received through the NSLP OR purchased commercially is subject to a recall.  At this point, AMS/FNS can communicate effectively with states, but they have no mechanism for reaching school districts, purchasers, etc.
Purchasing standards for all high-risk foods (not just ground beef) should be strengthened.  This is a complicated issue, since so much of school food is purchased commercially.  But for AT LEAST the 20 percent procured by the government for the NSLP, purchasing specifications must be strong, robust, and protective.
School purchasers (those buying food commercially for schools) should have access to critical safety information of the food producers they are purchasing from–including inspection reports.  AMS should create a database accessible to school purchasers with information on USDA and FDA-regulated producers who wish to sell to schools.

Klein said advocates are hoping to get provisions that address these concerns added to the House version.

Funding for the bill a mixed bag
Food safety aside, most concerns about the Senate nutrition bill are over funding. Healthy food advocates have mixed feelings about the bills moving through Congress. Some think the funding is embarrassingly low for making serious changes, others are simply happy the program is set to receive its first boost in food reimbursement funding (aside from adjusting for inflation) since 1973.

lunch-money-featured.jpgJill Richardson, of La Vida Locavore, a food policy blog, thinks the bill is “lousy.”

“I wouldn’t expect any bill from Blanche Lincoln to be good. And this one isn’t.  Obama called for $10 billion over 10 years in new money for child nutrition.  Lincoln gave it less than half that ($4.5 billion over 10 years).  That’s bad,” Richardson wrote on her blog after the Senate bill was voted out of committee last week.

“It’s especially bad because most of the problems with school lunch cannot be solved without spending more money,” she wrote. “It’s really that simple.”

Gillibrand, who serves on the Senate Ag committee, also believes the funding in the Senate bill is inadequate.  Many school lunch advocates had been aiming for a one dollar increase in the reimbursement rate per meal, to allow drastic improvements in the quality of food. The Senate bill increases the rate by 6 cents.

Gillibrand believes the legislation should provide $4 billion every year, instead of $4 billion over 10 years. “We have a long way to go from 6 cents to 70 cents [per meal] we need,” Gillibrand said of the increase.

Margo Wooton, director of nutrition policy at CSPI and a veteran advocate for better nutrition in schools, praised the overall bill, pointing out that it contains “important steps to improve child nutrition and address childhood obesity.”

One of the big victories, according to Wootan, is the agreement between health advocates and food and beverage companies to improve the nutritional quality of foods sold out of vending machines and other venues outside of school meals.

“Getting junk food out of schools is important for improving children’s diets and ensuring that those so-called competitive foods don’t undermine the school lunch program,” said Wootan in a statement last week.

Aside from slightly raising the reimbursement rate and gi
ving unhealthy food in vending machines the boot, the Senate bill includes $40 million in funding for Farm to School programs, establishes a pilot program for getting more organic food into nutrition programs, and strengthens nutrition standards for all food sold in schools.

Correction: this article originally left out Senator Gillibrand’s food safety language that was added in the managers amendment.