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Food Poisoning Risk Targeted by New School Lunch Rules

Federal regulators have released new rules designed to protect students by decreasing the risk of food poisoning from school lunches.

The new initiatives, announced this month by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, will add new safety and quality requirements to food purchased by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for the National School Lunch Program. This will include new food safety purchasing requirements for beef suppliers, better information sharing between federal agencies that handle food safety, new research into school food safety, and a review of meat, poultry and processed egg vendors who provide food to the school lunch program.

One of the reviews will be an evaluation by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which will look at the Agricultural Marketing Service’s (AMS) ground beef purchasing program. The NAS will review the scientific validity of AMS’s technical requirements.

While most health adults fully recover within a few weeks from food poisoning, which most commonly involve E. coli contamination or salmonella bacteria, young children face an increased risk of severe illnesses from consuming the same foods. This could lead to dehydration, hospitalization, kidney failure or even death.

“Nothing is more important than the health and well-being of our nation’s school children,” Vilsack said in a USDA press release. “We must do everything we can to ensure that our kids are being served safe, high quality foods at school.”

The new initiatives follow a GAO report released in September that found many school lunch programs across the country were not notified of food recalls in a timely fashion after contaminated peanut butter products and vegetables were linked to 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.

Rep. George Miller, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, called for a probe of the school lunch program following the GAO report and an E. coli outbreak in New England last fall that sickened 20 children who ate contaminated hamburgers from South Shore Meats at an environmental camp in Massachusetts. No school lunches were connected to the outbreak.

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