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GAO Audit: Schools Slow to Get Alerts About Tainted Food

by Peter Eisler and Blake Morrison
WASHINGTON - Federal agencies that supply food for 31 million schoolchildren fail to ensure that tainted products are pulled quickly from cafeterias, a federal audit obtained by USA TODAY finds.

The delays raise the risk of children being sickened by contaminated food, according to the audit by Congress' Government Accountability Office.

An entree of nachos, smothered with cheese and meat, is often consumed with chocolate milk for lunch, at Von Steuben Metro Science High School. (Chicago Tribune photo by Alex Garcia / June 10, 2009) In recent recalls, including one this year in which salmonella-infected peanut butter sickened almost 700 people, the government failed to disseminate "timely and complete notification about suspect food products provided to schools through the federal commodities program," the audit says.

Such alerts sometimes took more than a week to reach schools, "during which time (schools) unknowingly served affected products."

The audit focuses on the Food and Nutrition Service, or FNS, an arm of the Department of Agriculture that provides states and school systems with federally purchased commodities for school lunch and breakfast programs. The agency lacks systems to ensure that it is notified when the Food and Drug Administration begins a food-safety investigation that may lead to a recall, the audit says.

Then, instead of determining in advance whether a suspect product was sent to schools - and advising those schools not to serve the food while the investigation is underway - the service sometimes doesn't begin that process until a recall announcement is made.

"Further actions must be taken to strengthen the communications, planning and procedures needed to prevent recalled or contaminated foods from entering (school) cafeterias," Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who chairs the Committee on Education and Labor, said of the findings.

Auditors cited the recalls of 4,000 products containing peanuts from the Peanut Corp. of America. After salmonella was traced to the Georgia plant, the FDA announced a limited recall of products made there during a specific period. But the Food and Nutrition Service determined that its purchases from the plant were not made during that time and said on its website that schools weren't affected. Not until six days later, after the recall was expanded to cover products made on other dates, did the service tell schools to pull all the plant's products.

As a result, the audit says, some of the 226 students who got diarrhea and other salmonella-related symptoms "may have consumed the (tainted) products in school." About 46 were hospitalized.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says in a written response to the audit that ensuring the safety of school meals is of "utmost importance" and the department is developing a formal system to get advance notice when FDA is investigating food-safety concerns that could lead to recalls. He also promised new policies and guidelines to improve communication with states and schools.

"It is absolutely essential that food recalls affecting schools are carried out quickly and effectively because children are most vulnerable to becoming seriously ill from food-borne illness outbreaks," says Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who chairs the House Approprations subcommittee on agriculture.

 

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