Lawmaker Seeks Investigation into Risk of E. Coli in School Lunches

November 9, 2009 06:00 PM

Beef Today Editors

In light of recent outbreaks of E. coli that led to a recall of ground beef from major supermarkets, U.S. Representative George Miller (D-CA), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, asked the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate the risk of contaminated beef from the commercial market entering the school meal programs. This would be part of an investigation GAO launched at Miller's request last year into the safety of meat served in school cafeterias.

A recently issued GAO report identified standards and procedures to help reduce the risk of school children consuming recalled food purchased as commodities to use in school meals. The report specifically focused on eliminating contaminated food provided to schools through the commodity food program for use in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) school meal programs. In his letter today, Miller asked GAO to also examine what protocols exist to ensure foods, specifically processed meat, that schools purchase on the commercial market, outside of USDA's commodity program, is safe. 

"I write because I remain concerned about the safety of our nation's food supply and whether there is an undue risk for food contaminated with dangerous pathogens to be unknowingly purchased by schools for use in the school meal programs,” wrote Miller, whose committee has jurisdiction over school nutrition programs. "Recent media reports have drawn our attention yet again to significant recalls of contaminated ground beef that was available in the commercial marketplace. Although there are no reports of schools being implicated in any of the food safety illnesses related to this latest wave of recalls, I am concerned that the systems in place do not adequately minimize schools' risk for procuring and providing contaminated products purchased through commercial channels for use in the school meal programs.”

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that beef contaminated with E. coli, produced at a New York meat processing plant, caused two deaths and sent 16 others to the hospital. That outbreak led to the recall of over 500,000 pounds of ground beef from retailers, including Trader Joe's, Price Chopper's and Giant Foods. 

While the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires that all ground beef made available to schools through the commodity program be tested for E.coli, ground beef processed and sold to schools on the commercial market is not subject to the same minimum standards.  It is currently up to local school districts to decide whether to require ground beef products purchased from the commercial market to undergo similar quality and safety testing as USDA commodity products.

Click here to read more from Miller.

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