School Meal Programs:

Few Outbreaks of Foodborne Illness Reported

RCED-00-53: Published: Feb 22, 2000. Publicly Released: Mar 7, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the safety of foods served in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs, focusing on the extent: (1) of foodborne illness outbreaks related to meals served in schools; (2) to which Department of Agriculture (USDA)-donated foods in schools were removed, replaced, or disposed of because of the potential to cause foodborne illness; and (3) to which USDA has established procurement policies and procedures for ensuring the safety of foods it donates to the programs.

GAO noted that: (1) 20 outbreaks of foodborne illness in schools were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during calendar year 1997; (2) the health department records of states reporting these outbreaks indicate that only 8 of the 20 outbreaks were associated with the food served in the school meal programs; (3) the other 12 outbreaks were related to foods that were consumed in schools but that were brought from home or obtained from other sources; (4) health department records of the states reporting outbreaks in schools to the CDC in 1997 identified nine outbreaks associated with food served in school meal programs during 1998; (5) GAO identified five instances during the last 5 years in which USDA, in collaboration with others, removed, replaced, or disposed of USDA-donated foods because of the potential for the foods to cause foodborne illness; (6) only two of the five actions involved USDA-donated foods; (7) however, these five actions may not represent all the food safety actions taken because USDA lacks a process to systematically identify and document such actions; (8) a multiagency food distribution reengineering team has proposed that the Food Distribution Division establish a database to continuously track all food safety taken on donated foods; (9) USDA has established procurement policies and procedures that are intended to help ensure the safety of foods donated to schools; (10) USDA's provisions for the safety of donated foods are contained in procurement contracts used to purchase the foods from various suppliers; (11) some of these contract provisions are based on the same food safety regulations that are intended to protect food sold to the general public; (12) for certain foods with special safety concerns, USDA contracts require more stringent safety testing than is required by law for food sold to the general public; (13) USDA contracts require donated food be maintained at appropriate temperatures during processing, storage, and transportation; (14) USDA also considers potential suppliers' food safety compliance records before awarding contracts; (15) the food safety provisions in USDA's procurement policies and procedures do not apply to schools, which purchase 83 percent of the food served in the school lunch program and all of the food for the breakfast program; (16) furthermore, USDA provides schools with limited guidance on procuring safe foods; and (17) the extent to which school food procurement contracts address safety may vary, depending on state and local laws and the procurement guidance that is available to schools.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Food Safety and Nutrition Service has revised their food purchasing guidance manual for schools to include instructions on how safe food purchasing procedures can be integrated into every step of the procurement process.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that donated food safety actions are documented and that school contract provisions help ensure the safety of foods purchased for the school lunch and school breakfast programs, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator, Food and Nutrition Service, to expeditiously develop the proposed Food Distribution Division's food safety action database and provide information to state or local authorities on safety provisions that could be included in school food procurement contracts.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture


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