School nutrition program under scrutiny

by Staff
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WASHINGTON — Despite its efforts, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (U.S.D.A.) Food and Nutrition Service (F.N.S.), which oversees federal school meals programs, did not always ensure states and schools received timely and complete notification about suspect food products provided to schools through the federal commodity program, according to a report published by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. As a result of the report, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York has authored legislation that would make many of the recommendations outlined in the G.A.O. report into law.

The G.A.O. report said that during three recent food recalls, the F.N.S. notified states, but in only one case did it inform schools to hold and not serve suspect foods prior to an official recall of the commodity products. When videotape aired by the media showed inhumane treatment of cattle at a plant that provided beef to the commodity program, the F.N.S. told states to have schools stop serving the company’s beef weeks before the official recall of commodity beef was announced. However, when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (H.H.S.) Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) recalled suspect peanut products and canned vegetables in two other cases, the F.N.S. did not inform states and schools to hold and not serve the companies’ commodity products until the recalls were expanded weeks later.

In addition, the F.N.S.’s initial notification to states regarding recalls did not provide complete information on the full range of products affected, according to the G.A.O. report. Instead, states and schools continued to receive information on multiple other recalled products over time. It sometimes took states and schools a week or more to determine what additional products were subject to a recall, during which time they unknowingly served affected products.

The F.N.S. provided instructions for disposal and reimbursement of recalled products to states that, in turn, provided instructions to schools but some schools experienced problems. Some schools reported to the G.A.O. problems in finding landfills that would accept large quantities of recalled products. Some schools also reported that reimbursement instructions were not clear, reimbursement was delayed for months, and that all of their expenses related to the recalls were not reimbursed.

Although both U.S.D.A.’s Food Safety Inspection Service (F.S.I.S.) and the F.D.A. procedures direct them to conduct recall quality checks, neither included thousands of schools that received recalled U.S.D.A.-commodities products for the beef and peanut recalls because officials with both agencies thought the F.N.S. conducted the checks. As a result, they were unable to ensure the recalls were being carried out effectively by schools.

To improve communication efforts and the recall process, the G.A.O. made several recommendations, including calling for the development of guidelines to help determine whether a hold should be placed on suspect commodities; the development for more timely communications throughout the supply chain; and more specific instruction to institutions on how to dispose of recalled products.

"Parents should have confidence that the food their children are served at school is safe and free of contaminants," said Ms. Gillibrand. "But schools aren’t getting the information they need from the federal government to keep our kids safe from tainted products. Food items that are being pulled from grocery store shelves across the country are still being served to millions of school children. It’s wrong, it’s dangerous, and we need to take action." FSM

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