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School Lunch Food Poisoning Risk Assessment Requested by Lawmaker

A prominent House of Representatives lawmaker is calling for a probe into the risk of an E. coli food poisoning outbreak hitting the nation’s school lunch program. The concern comes in the wake of two simultaneous contaminated ground beef outbreaks in New England, which killed two people and sickened more than two dozen others, many of whom were children.

Rep. George Miller, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee called for a probe of the nation’s school lunch program to evaluate the risk of a similar deadly outbreak of E. coli food poisoning striking children across the country. Miller has said he is concerned that an outbreak may hit schools across the country and has asked for the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate the effectiveness of the federal, state and local school lunch programs at preventing food poisoning outbreaks.

During the most recent E. coli outbreaks, 20 children fell ill after eating contaminated hamburgers from South Shore Meats at an environmental camp in Massachusetts, and two people died and a number of people contracted E. coli food poisoning from ground beef made by Fairbank Farms. Together, the two companies recalled more than half a million pounds of ground beef. No school lunches were connected to the outbreaks.

The request for the probe also follows a GAO report released in September that found that many school lunch programs across the country were not notified in a timely fashion of recalled peanut butter products and vegetable recalls that were issued after other recent food poisoning outbreaks. Although no specific reports of illness have been identified, the notification breakdown resulted in children in some schools being served food that had been recalled days or weeks earlier.

The GAO report concluded that U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), which oversees federal school meals programs, does not always ensure that states and schools received timely and complete notification about suspect food products provided to schools. It suggested that changes could be made to the process that would reduce the risk of school children being exposed to contaminated products that have already been recalled.

The recent ground beef outbreaks were caused by E. coli o157:H7, one of the more common causes of food poisoning in the United States. When left untreated, it can lead to dehydration and potentially life-threatening illness. While most healthy adults recover within a few week from E. coli food poisoning, young children and the elderly could be at risk for more severe illness. If the toxin enters the blood stream, E. coli could also lead to kidney failure known as Hemolytic-Urenia Syndrome (HUS).

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