Panel Seeks School Lunch Safety Assurances

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Weeks after more than 200 students and school workers caught hepatitis A from eating frozen strawberries in their school lunches and thousands more students were inoculated against the virus, a House panel last week sought assurances from federal officials that such health crises can be avoided in the future. ("Hepatitis Outbreak Spurs Inoculations in 5 States," April 16, 1997.)

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"As legislators, and as parents, we need to know that all appropriate steps are being taken to assure that the food being served to our children is safe," Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Calif., said at a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth, and Families, which he chairs.

During the three-hour session, both Democratic and Republican committee members pressed the administration officials responsible for oversight of the school lunch program to explain their current safety procedures and how they planned to improve them.

The lawmakers were particularly interested in the government's procedures for safeguarding against foreign-grown commodities entering the federal lunch program.

The contaminated frozen fruit was linked to Andrew & Williamson Co., a packing and processing business based in San Diego that imported the berries from Mexico. Under Department of Agriculture rules, the commodities purchased for the school lunch program must come from domestic food producers. Federal officials are investigating the company and may file criminal charges.

In her testimony, Mary Ann Keeffe, the USDA's acting undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services, reassured the congressmen that the food the federal government donates to the lunch program--which serves 25 million children daily--is safe.

Ms. Keeffe said that the USDA regularly audits food-producing plants, examines products, and requires suppliers to certify that products are domestically grown. As a result of the berry contamination, the USDA will now require stronger certification procedures, such as checking labels to trace the origin of the product.

Though the Food and Drug Administration still has not pinpointed how and when the berries became infected with hepatitis A, Fred Shank, the director of the agency's food-safety division, said that the Mexican fields where the strawberries were grown are a possible source.

Investigators for the FDA found open, unlined privies in pits adjacent to the strawberry fields and few hand-washing facilities, Mr. Shank said.

Hepatitis A is a highly contagious, but mild liver infection. The virus is spread orally or through human waste, often by people with poor hygiene who handle food.

Handle With Care

The committee also quizzed the lone school representative on the witness list about what school districts might do to keep the food supply safe.

Kathleen Corrigan, the director of food services for the Mount Diablo school district in Concord, Calif., said that districts are already trying to provide more education on safe food-handling practices to staff members.

The American School Food Service Association in Alexandria, Va., which represents school food workers, recently distributed the guide, "Serving it Safe: A Manager's Tool Kit," to every district in the country, she said.

But Ms. Corrigan stressed that it is beyond food-service directors' abilities to guard against contaminated commodities that show up on their doorsteps. "We must rely on the federal government to protect the quality and integrity of the national food supply," she said.

Under President Clinton's orders, guidelines on food safety are being prepared that may address some of the panels' concerns, Mr. Shank of the FDA said. But he did not specify what they would include.

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