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School Lunch Programs Have Excellent Food Safety Record

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School Lunch Programs Have Excellent Food Safety Record

Recent School Food Safety Report is Misleading in its Analysis 

ALEXANDRIA, Va., (February 1, 2007) -- School nutrition programs across the country maintain exceptional food safety records, contrary to misrepresented findings in a report released this week by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and subsequent national media coverage.  Preparing and serving safe, nutritious meals are of the highest priority to the nation’s school nutrition professionals and the School Nutrition Association (SNA) continually supports those efforts through training programs for members, legislative advocacy and collaboration with government, association and private sector partners.

The report, “Making the Grade: An analysis of food safety in school cafeterias,” evaluated school food safety inspection reports from high school cafeterias in a limited sample of 20 school jurisdictions across the country, about .1% of all school districts.  As indicated on page one of the report, meals served in the nation’s school cafeterias are safe and nutritious, but report "grades" are determined by four criteria with schools themselves only being evaluated in one of those areas.

Additionally, the report does not provide a context for the overall amount of foodborne illness in schools or the source of the illnesses. According to the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO), outbreaks of foodborne illness in school are rare (GAO 2002; GAO 2000). GAO reported in the more than 33 million meals served per day to school children through the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program over a full year, there were only eight outbreaks reported in 1997 and nine in 1998. GAO found that 195, or about 3 percent, of the total 7390 foodborne outbreaks reported nationwide between 1990 and 1999 occurred in schools.  Data do not exist to distinguish between the outbreaks in schools involving the school meal programs and those involving food from other sources, such as food from students’ homes. Additionally, GAO documented that other foodservice establishments are much more likely than schools to be implicated in a case of foodborne illness. 

"I was disappointed to see the Center for Science in the Public Interest conduct such a misleading evaluation of food safety in schools.  Three of the four criteria used for this evaluation are outside of the control of the school districts.  Based on these criteria, we would have to conclude that children cannot safely eat anywhere but in their home because schools, restaurants and other foodservice outlets must follow the same state regulations," said Dr. Jeannie Sneed, PhD, RD, SNS, CFSP, Professor, Department of Apparel, Educational Studies, & Hospitality Management at Iowa State University. 

Among the misrepresentations in “Making the Grade”: 

1. Frequency of school health inspection – A criteria that is problematic in many states because there simply are not enough health inspectors to complete two inspections of each school each year. School nutrition programs have no control over the number of inspectors available at a given health department.

2. Food code – Schools are not in control of what Food Code they use; Food Codes are adopted by state legislatures.  If the school used the most current 2005 Food Code without it being adopted in their state, the school nutrition program would be in violation of state law. The same food codes are used in restaurants and other foodservice establishments. 

3. Inspection grades – States determine how inspections will be done--not the school district.  This is an issue for the state inspection agency (and may indeed be part of the state code so legislatures may be involved).

4. Posting inspection scores on a school district’s or health department’s Web site – There are no "rules" or guidelines that require online availability of inspection scores.  The 2004 Reauthorization Act requires that inspection reports be made available to the public, which is often done by posting the inspections at each school site.

5. Time versus temperature – An accepted modification, it is approved by the inspection agency on a case-by-case basis and should not be viewed as a violation.

6. Not meeting requirements – Many of the violations cited were not related to product adulteration or contamination and follow the food code for the state in question.  For example, where the report cited bare-hand contact with food there is not a specific concern to food safety if hands are cleaned and sanitized.

Completely absent from the report is any information on an additional food safety requirement of the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004 that directs each school food authority to implement a school food safety program based on Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) principles. Schools are the ONLY retail foodservice operations that are required by federal law to have food safety plans based on principles of HACCP programs. School nutrition professionals nationwide have embraced this directive by training foodservice staff and developing and implementing programs based on the process approach to HACCP and following the guidance of the US Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service. These food safety HACCP plans result in even greater vigilance in preventing foodborne illness in school cafeterias and provide documentation of temperatures and all critical food-handling steps in the preparation and serving process.

It should also be noted that for the USDA-donated food for the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program, the Agricultural Marketing Service utilizes meat, eggs and poultry products that it has purchased and that requires additional purchase specifications.  These purchase specifications include HACCP food safety programs and pathogen testing for every lot of product, such as E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella.  This provides for additional safeguards in the products in the National School Lunch Program.

The School Nutrition Association makes food safety and sanitation training available to all of its members: from district foodservice directors to school kitchen managers and their staff. SNA’s certification program requires ten hours of food safety and sanitation training and includes requirements for continuing education. Over 24,000 school nutrition professionals have this certification. 

“While schools should continue vigilance to provide safe and nutritious meals for our school children, the majority of foodborne illness does not come from schools. Foodborne illness is reported from a variety of sources with schools having a significantly lower rate of documented foodborne illness,” said Janey Thornton, MS, SNS, president of the School Nutrition Association.    “The recommendations provided in the CSPI report, particularly employment of certified food safety handlers and the use of best food safety procedures are valid food safety suggestions, and should be practiced not only by schools, but additionally by all that handle and serve food to the public.”

SNA, the School Nutrition Association, is a national, non-profit professional organization representing more than 55,000 members who provide high-quality, low-cost meals to students across the country.  The Association and its members are dedicated to feeding children safe and nutritious meals. Founded in 1946, SNA is the only association devoted exclusively to protecting and enhancing children’s health and well being through school meals and sound nutrition education.

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