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How Safe Are School Meals, Parents Wonder

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Hepatitis A-infected strawberries in school lunches. Chicken nuggets laced with dioxin. Hamburgers tainted with E.coli.

The rash of food scares in recent months has made some educators and parents wonder whether they can be sure the government-issued victuals in the national school lunch program are fit for consumption.

"We are extremely wary of the stuff now," said Pat Spencer, a spokesman for the Los Angeles school district, which inoculated 9,000 students and adults last spring after discovering that fruit cups students had consumed were linked to a shipment of frozen strawberries that caused an outbreak of hepatitis A in several Michigan schools.

Then last month, the nation's second-largest district was forced to discard chicken stored in school freezers after federal officials said the poultry contained unacceptable levels of dioxin, a highly toxic chemical compound. Students had already consumed eight tons of the poultry.

"This kind of stuff is happening every time we turn around," Mr. Spencer said.

The increase in what used to be once-in-a-blue-moon occurrences now has consumer groups blaming an outdated federal food-inspection system that they claim is ill-equipped to prevent new strains of resistant bacteria from entering the food supply.

Moreover, by the time the entrees and side dishes are plopped onto the lunch tray, most school lunch commodities have traveled a lengthy route, providing numerous entry points for contamination as well as making it hard to identify the site of contamination.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the federal lunch program that serves 26 million children each school day, said that the tainted chicken patties it supplied to schools in 33 states last winter originated from a Mississippi animal feed company that mixed clay containing dioxin with chicken feed to prevent clumping. No students in Los Angeles or any other district have gotten sick from the spoiled meat, which USDA officials said posed no serious health threat because the levels were so low that only repeated exposure over time would cause serious illness.

Federal officials have traced the infected strawberries that were transported to schools in six states last spring to a California food processor that they say illegally imported the Mexican-grown fruit. But federal agencies are still investigating at what point in the process--from the fields to the lunch table--the fruit was contaminated.

That inability to pinpoint the source of the exposure and to eradicate the virus or bacteria before the tainted food reaches the school cafeteria has prompted some parents around the country to pull their children from the school lunch program in the past year.

"A lot of parents were really concerned and weren't letting their kids eat," said Joan Van Voorst, a parent at Hughes Elementary School in Marshall, Mich., where several students fell ill from eating the spoiled berries. "There was a higher sack-lunch rate," she said.

The Route

Twenty percent of the food in the national school lunch program, which offers meals to needy children for free or a reduced price as well as to other students for full price, is supplied directly through the USDA commodities program. Districts buy the remainder of their groceries themselves and are reimbursed by the USDA for all the food that the children eligible for free or reduced lunches eat.

Every year, the USDA chooses the crop of commodities it will send to schools based on nutritional needs and market factors, and food manufacturers bid for the contract. In turn, these contractors order ground-beef patties and turkey breasts from the slaughterhouses and buy green peas, peaches, and corn--items on this year's USDA list--from farms.

The food is then processed, packaged, and delivered to a handful of regional sites across the country, where the products are usually stored in warehouses until trucks shuttle them to local schools.

All along the route, the USDA requires various safety precautions, from labeling and coding packages to maintaining specific temperatures in the refrigerated trucks. Meat- and poultry-processing plants are inspected nearly every day, the USDA said. Other kinds of food plants are inspected every five to 10 years.

Once the food arrives at schools, food-service workers are supposed to abide by strict safety and sanitation rules laid down by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The FDA requires that schools follow a set of guidelines from purchasing to storage to preparation that are more rigorous than those used for restaurants, said Suzanne Rigby, the director of nutrition and education for the Alexandria, Va.-based American School Food Service Association, a membership organization with 65,000 food-service workers. While a diner can order a steak medium-rare at a restaurant, for example, hamburgers served in schools must be thoroughly cooked, Ms. Rigby said. Well-cooked foods are less likely to harbor parasites or bacteria, she explained.

FDA officials also say that one of the simplest and best ways to prevent food-borne illness is for food workers to practice good hygiene.

While school food handlers are not suspected of having caused the recent outbreak of hepatitis A, the mild liver infection--which can cause fever, vomiting, and fatigue--is most often transmitted by handling or consuming fecal-contaminated food or water.

So before serving meals to students, food handlers are required to wash their hands with soapy water and scrub for 20 seconds. They must also wear clean clothing and hair restraints.

Although not all school food-service workers abide by these sanitary measures consistently, Ms. Rigby said she is confident that the current rules are more than adequate to ensure that children are receiving wholesome meals.

"I don't care where my child eats--even in my own kitchen there's a risk factor," Ms. Rigby said. "But I feel safer with my kids eating in the schools than probably any other place."

'New Bugs'

USDA officials stress that the spate of reports of tainted food in no way diminishes the integrity of the school meals program.

"People should be acutely aware that the food supply that goes to schools is safe, and that every precaution is taken to protect children," Shirley Watkins, the undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services for the USDA, said in an interview last week.

Experts at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who have been tracing the source of the outbreaks suggest that the recent food scares both in the schools and the general food supply may be due, in part, to changing environmental factors.

While tainted strawberries and spoiled chicken were the only products that made their way onto school lunch trays, 25 million pounds of beef infected with the E.coli bacterium were recalled from supermarkets and restaurants last month. And hundreds of people were sickened by bacteria-infected raw oysters, and 66 children and adults got sick from drinking unpasteurized apple juice tainted with E.coli this summer.

"There are new bugs out there," said Dr. Lawrence Bachorik, an FDA spokesman who attributes the recent outbreaks to more resistant strains of bacteria--such as the E.coli found in the beef patties--that didn't exist 10 to 20 years ago.

In addition to these more virulent pathogens, increasing amounts of imported food products may also have contributed to the recent rise in food-borne illnesses, Dr. Bachorik said.

The CDC estimates that 9,000 people die from food-related illness, and millions more get sick each year. The government does not keep track of how many students or staff members are sickened by eating at school.

Some consumer groups contend that the recent incidents demonstrate that many more safeguards are needed to guarantee the integrity of the U.S. food supply.

Oversight of the nation's food is spread among several regulatory agencies, which makes the system unwieldy and inefficient, argued Caroline Smith DeWaal, the director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group based in Washington. The USDA, FDA, CDC, and Environmental Protection Agency all have a hand in food regulation, she said, meaning more germs could potentially slip through the bureaucratic cracks.

"There are too many holes in the food-safety net that let bacteria into the food supply," Ms. DeWaal said.

Although the amount of food imported into the United States has doubled in the past five years, there has been no real parallel increase in inspectors, she added. Currently, the federal government inspects from 2 percent to 10 percent of all food imports, according to the USDA. Some processing plants, such as those that produce canned fruit or soup, for example, are inspected only once a decade.

The USDA requires that school lunch products be homegrown, but the Mexican strawberries that arrived in schools show the need for stricter controls, Ms. DeWaal contended.

Bolstering Safety

Dane Bernard, a vice president of the Washington-based National Food Processors Association, said last week that the industry is about to implement new, government-mandated accountability measures to better track foods from "farm to fork."

"We think the food supply is safe, but that doesn't mean there can't be some improvements," he said.

In the past year, the government has also stepped up efforts to bolster food safety. The FDA announced last month that it plans to put warning labels on unpasteurized apple juice.

And the Clinton administration asked Congress this year to authorize a $43 million food-safety initiative that would improve food-monitoring and -inspection procedures. The measure would also subsidize research to identify new, faster ways of detecting food pathogens and would underwrite research to find better ways to prevent food poisoning. The plan, if approved, would also expand food-safety education efforts to consumers and food-service workers.

Some districts, however, are still planning to take extra precautions by conducting their own monitoring of government-issued edibles.

"We are probably going to be doing some of our testing as this stuff comes in," said Mr. Spencer of the Los Angeles district, which runs the largest school lunch program in the nation.

But Louis Giannunzio, the superintendent of the Marshall, Mich., schools, where 100 children took ill from eating tainted strawberries last spring, doesn't plan to make any big changes in the meals program.

Though there's been a 10 percent decline in student participation in the district's lunch program so far this fall--which may be due in part to a price hike--the administrator expects public confidence to rebound soon.

"Probably some parents are still reluctant to sign kids up for lunch," Mr. Giannunzio said. "But most will give it another chance."

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