House Holds First Hearing on Child Nutrition Reauthorization Bill: Obesity, Hunger, School Food Safety All on Agenda

Celebrity chef and restaurateur Tom Colicchio, a panel of food policy experts, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack testified yesterday before the House Education and Labor Committee on a pending, historic child nutrition bill. The Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act, an $8 billion initiative, would boost funding and set nutritional standards for food sold in schools.

nutrition panel.jpgThe bill is a top priority for the Obama Administration and a key component of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign to end the epidemic of childhood obesity within a generation.

“There is no better investment–no better stimulus to our economy–than feeding this nation’s children healthy and well,” said well-known chef and Top Chef host, Tom Colicchio before Congress yesterday. “Let’s fund school lunches and breakfasts at a spending level that significantly raises the quality and variety of what schools can afford, and get rid of junk food in vending machines once and for all.

“We are on the brink of a national health crisis that is affecting our youngest children,” said committee chairman George Miller (D-CA) at the hearing. “Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years. Nearly one in three children is obese.”

“We want to empower schools to help improve meal quality, to change children’s lives and take the issue of children’s health seriously,” said Miller, as he outlined four central tenets of the bill:

(1) increase access to healthy food during the school day,
(2) improve food safety and recall process in schools,
(3) increase the reimbursement rate for school meals for the first time in 30 years,
(4) extend nutrition programs to meet needs beyond the traditional school year.

On top of targeting both obesity and hunger crises facing millions of Americans eligible for federal nutritional programs, the bill contains specific food safety language.

The legislation responds directly to a September Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that found a lack of coordination in communicating food safety problems to schools. The bill calls for improved communication to speed notification of recalled school foods consistent with GAO recommendations and ensuring all foodservice employees have access to food safety training to prevent and identify foodborne illness such as through Web-based training.

New USDA school food safety standards also take affect

school-lunch9-featured.jpgSecretary Vilsack also announced yesterday the USDA has finalized “tougher new standards” for ground beef purchased by the Agricultural Marketing Service for federal food and nutrition assistance programs including the National School Lunch Program.

“It is one of my highest priorities to ensure that food provided to the National School Lunch Program and other nutrition programs is as safe and nutritious as possible,” Vilsack said in a statement. “The new standards guarantee our purchases are in line with major private-sector buyers of ground beef. We will continue to apply the best scientific knowledge to increase the safety across the board of our nutritional programs.”

The new requirements will be applicable to Agricultural Marketing Service ground beef contracts awarded on or after July 1, 2010, according to the agency. The Agricultural Marketing Service released a draft of the plan in May with a request for comments. Based upon comments and data submitted by the Department of Agriculture’s FSIS and Agricultural Marketing Service and members of the general public, revisions were made to the final specification that will be used for purchases beginning in July 2010.

In addition to continuing a zero tolerance for E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella, the new  Agricultural Marketing Service standards:

(1) tighten microbiological testing protocols;
(2) tighten the microbiological upper specification and critical limits;
(3) increase microbiological sampling frequency for finished products to every 15 minutes; and,
(4) institute additional rejection criteria for source trimmings used to manufacture  Agricultural Marketing Service-purchased ground beef.

“[The Agricultural Marketing Service] will also consider any vendor classified by FSIS as having a long term poor safety record as an ineligible vendor until a complete cause-and-effect analysis is completed,” the agency said in a release.

“We applaud USDA Secretary Vilsack for taking strong action to improve the safety of ground beef purchased for the school lunch program,” said Liz Hitchcock of U.S. PIRG, the federation of state Public Interest Research Groups, a non-profit public interest group, in a statement yesterday.  “The thirty million kids who eat a school lunch each day deserve the safest food possible.”
“This is an important first step,” said Hitchcock.  “By raising the bar for ground beef served in schools and increasing the frequency of testing for contamination, the USDA is taking some of the mystery out of the meat on the lunch tray.  But kids eat more than burgers and sloppy joes, so we encourage USDA to raise standards for poultry and other high risk to make all food in school cafeterias safer.”
The new purchasing requirements can be found in their entirety here

Pictured: Experts give testimony before the House Education and Labor Committee yesterday. Photo by Obama Foodorama, see ObFo for full coverage of Colicchio and Vilsack testimonies.