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U.S. delayed telling schools about food recalls

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The federal government failed to inform schools of recalls of suspected tainted food products, potentially putting millions of schoolchildren at risk of food poisoning over the last two years, a government investigation has concluded.

The recalled foods included salmonella-tainted peanut products linked to the deaths of at least nine people, said the report, which was completed last month by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

The GAO said it did not have any data on how many children may have been sickened by meals they ate at school, but it said it had confirmed that “some affected commodities were served to schoolchildren after holds and recalls were announced.”

The findings raise “concerns about the safety of foods served in schools and the welfare of schoolchildren,” the report said, “because they are more likely to suffer complications from food-borne illnesses, and in part because they may have less knowledge to make informed choices about the foods they consume.”

In a response to the report, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wrote that he was seeking to “streamline communications among departments, agencies, and State partners to yield a more effective and integrated approach to handling recalls.”

Notices sent ‘weeks later’

The GAO said it was confident that the Food and Nutrition Service was “aware of these factors” and was “taking a number of steps to improve its processes.” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., introduced a bill this week to compel the agency to ensure that public schools were notified immediately when suspicious foods were identified.

“Food items that are being pulled from grocery store shelves across the country are still being served to millions of schoolchildren,” Gillibrand said. “It’s wrong, it’s dangerous and we need to take action.”

In the report, which was requested by senior members of congressional committees overseeing education and food safety, the GAO studied the federal response to high-profile recalls involving products from three companies:

  • Nearly 4,000 products produced by Peanut Corp. of America, which were recalled this year for possible salmonella contamination. Schools in Arkansas, California, Idaho and Minnesota received some of the recalled products directly through the school meal program; in addition, peanut butter was shipped to a further processor, which distributed the products to other states.
  • More than 143 million pounds of meat from ill cattle that had been sold over two years by Westland/Hallmark Meat Co., which were pulled early last year in the biggest food recall in U.S. history. About 50 million pounds of suspect ground beef was provided to more than 7,000 school districts in 46 states and the District of Columbia before and after the recall.
  • Canned vegetables produced by New Era Canning Co., which were recalled from December 2007 to February 2008 because of possible botulism contamination. Schools in in 37 states received the products.

All three were distributed through the Agriculture Department’s Food and Nutrition Service and its Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which accounts for 15 percent to 20 percent of all food served in school meals.

Only in the case of the beef did the federal government, working through the states, appropriately notify school districts to withhold the suspect foods from school lunches, a process the Agriculture Department says should take no more than 48 hours. The GAO criticized that time frame as inadequate even if everything goes right.

In the cases of the peanut butter and the canned vegetables, it found, notification did not come until “weeks later.” And when it did, it sometimes did not include complete information “that would be needed by schools to identify all affected products in their inventory, particularly for processed products.”

“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 GAO said.

Other shortcomings identified

The failure to notify schools in time was not the only problem the GAO identified.

Several federal agencies have programs to verify that recall information reaches all its appropriate targets, but each agency thought one of the others had done the checks, the report said.

Food and Nutrition Service officials “told us it was not their responsibility to check on the effectiveness” of the recalls in the review, saying “they relied on their regulatory partners ... to conduct these quality checks,” the GAO said.

“As a result, they were unable to ensure that the recalls were being carried out effectively by schools,” it said.

Afterward, some schools reported that they could not find landfills that would accept large quantities of recalled products. Others reported that reimbursement instructions were not clear, that reimbursements were delayed for months and that not all of their expenses were reimbursed.