School Meal Program: Few Instances of Foodborne Outbreaks Reported, but Opportunities Exist to Enhance Outbreak Data and Food Safety Practices

GAO-03-530 Published: May 09, 2003. Publicly Released: Jun 05, 2003.
Jump To:
Skip to Highlights

More than 28 million children receive meals daily through the federal school meal programs. Providing meals that are safe is especially important because young children have a higher risk of complications from some foodborne illnesses. GAO examined (1) the frequency and causes of reported foodborne illness outbreaks associated with the federal school meal programs and (2) the practices that federal, state, and local governments as well as other food providers find useful for safeguarding meals.

Skip to Recommendations


Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Health and Human Services To improve nationwide data on the frequency and causes of foodborne illness associated with the federal school meal programs, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should require the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to revise the reporting mechanism that states use to voluntarily report foodborne outbreaks. Specifically, states should be prompted to specify whether reported outbreaks involved foods served through the federal school meal programs.
Closed – Implemented
In July 2003, CDC reported that it had taken the following actions to implement GAO's recommendation: (1) drafted a school-associated outbreak questionnaire that can be used to collect additional information through the Electronic Foodborne Outbreak Reporting System (EFOR); (2) prepared office staff to routinely monitor reports of school-associated outbreaks; (3) met with FNS to further discuss how to review the additional school-associated outbreak questions; and (4) expanded the scope of work with a programming contractor for the addition of a pop-up screen to EFOR that would prompt public health officials to collect additional information on school meal outbreaks.
Department of Agriculture To assist schools in their efforts to purchase safer food, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator of the Agricultural Marketing Service to highlight on AMS's Web page the more stringent product safety specifications the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) uses when purchasing foods it donates to schools.
Closed – Not Implemented
USDA has not taken action on this recommendation. They have concerns about developing a Web page highlighting instances where USDA has established more stringent product safety specifications for school commodities than commercial standards. According to USDA, such a Web page could be misinterpreted as implying that current commercial standards, as well as the food safety standards imposed by the Food Safety Inspection Service and the Food and Drug Administration, are inadequate for these products. AMS' Web site, as well as FNS' Food Distribution Division Web site and USDA's Commodity Food Network Web site currently contain links to detailed commodity specifications and standards that can be accessed by schools and the public
Department of Agriculture To enhance the safety of the federal breakfast and lunch programs in participating school districts, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator of the Food and Nutrition Service to further promote training and certification of key school food service personnel in food safety practices by, for example, publicizing the range of food safety training and certification opportunities available to school food service personnel from the American School Food Service Association, the National Restaurant Association, and other sources.
Closed – Implemented
USDA is issuing guidance to the state agencies and the school food authorities to develop training programs and is working closely with the National Food Service Management Institute to tailor and deliver training to assist the school food authorities in constructing and implementing their food safety programs.
Department of Agriculture To reduce the risk of bacterial contamination of food products USDA donates to schools, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrators of the Food and Nutrition Service and the Agricultural Marketing Service to study the advantages and disadvantages, including costs, of USDA donating only precooked or irradiated meat and poultry products to schools. Depending on the results of the study, the Secretary should consider whether to adopt these practices.
Closed – Implemented
In response to our recommendation, USDA has considered the feasibility of offering only precooked or irradiated poultry and meat products to schools and has opted for offering a combination of products. The department is however, phasing in National Master Processing Agreements which encourage states to use more of their commodity entitlement for processed products. USDA continues to provide a basic offering of processed precooked products and has add new products. The department is planning on testing several new precooked offerings including turkey crumbles, pork patties, and pork links. USDA also offered irradiated ground beef and ground beef patties to schools in school year 2004-2005 and in 2005-2006. However, no state has ordered the product to date.

Full Report