Food recalls not reported fast enough to schools

October 13, 2009

Food safety and what children are being served in schools are both currently hot topics for Americans.

Food safety and what children are being served in schools are both currently hot topics for Americans. And as legislation is currently underway to improve the safety of our food supply, by way of increased inspections and heightened government control, improving traceability systems are only part of the solution. Communication of recalls in a timely fashion are imperative especially when it comes to children.

In light of several food recalls over the past few years including beef and peanut products, the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) was asked to conduct a study that focused particularly on school food safety and how food recalls are handled. As children are still developing their immune systems and are unable to fight infection as well as adults, they are at high risk for foodborne illness. According to the August 2009 report from the GAO, improvements need to be made on the efficiency and effectiveness of communicating recalls when it comes to keeping kids safe at school.

In early 2009, when almost 4,000 peanut-containing foods were recalled for possible Salmonella contamination, the report from the GAO says that out of 700 people who were reported sickened, one-third were school age children between ages five and 18. This raises overall concern for school food safety and the need for review of the effectiveness of recalls of foods served in school food programs. These are the questions addressed in the study:

1. How do federal agencies notify states and schools about food recalls involving schools, and what actions did state and school food administrators take in response to recent recall notifications?
2. How do federal agencies advise states and schools about disposal of and reimbursement for recalled products, and what were state and school food administrators' experiences with the disposal and reimbursement process?
3. How did federal agencies assess the effectiveness of recent recalls, and to what extent do these assessments ensure that recalls are being carried out effectively in schools?

The study addresses the fact that schools are receiving food through a complex distribution network, making it difficult to track food from beginning to end, which in the end results in a delay in notification of food recalls to schools. The GAO confirmed that some children had been served food products after they had been recalled. In some cases notices were not received until weeks later, putting school age children at risk of food poisoning.

Under USDA procedures, the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) is directed to notify states within 24 hours of learning of a recall, and then the states are expected to notify schools within 24 hours of receiving a recall notice from FNS. This process is used only when USDA commodities are involved, which account for 15 percent to 20 percent of the products used in school meals. If a state or school food authority procures food commercially, which accounts for 80 percent to 85 percent of products used in school meals, neither FNS, FSIS, nor FDA is responsible for notifying states and schools; the school food administrator is typically notified directly by a distributor, wholesaler, or whoever sold the school district the food.

Not only does the study by the GAO show that communication of recalls is lacking in efficiency, they also found that some recalled food products could have been inadvertently consumed simply because the school had no means of disposing of the large quantities of food, particular with commodities. The commercially acquired products were generally easier to deal with because companies came to collect the recalled food.

For the complete report, click here.