A piece of legislation called the California Safe Schools Lunch Act (AB 1988) was recently passed by the State Assembly and now awaits action by the State Senate. Unfortunately, its positive-sounding title might not satisfy the State’s own truth-in-labeling laws. The Bill’s passage and the passage of similar laws around the country could put school children at greater risk, not less, from the dangers of foodborne illness.
As originally drafted, the Bill restricted the State’s Department of Education from ordering irradiated ground beef from the USDA’s National School Lunch Program, an option that school districts have available for the first time in 2004. In its present form, it makes this additional food safety measure more difficult and expensive, at a time local school districts are financially strained. In some cities, like San Francisco, Berkeley and Washington, DC, local school boards have succumbed to pressure from irradiation opponents and voted outright bans on serving irradiated foods in cafeterias.
The problem is this: an estimated 73,000 people, many children, get E. coli infection every year and 61 die from it. The GAO found that between 1990 and 1999, 195 outbreaks of foodborne illnesses occurred in our schools, sickening thousands of children. I currently represent children who were made ill with E. coli O157:H7 infections after eating contaminated lettuce served at Eastern Washington University, a school in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and schools in San Diego and Orange Counties. In the past, I represented children made ill after eating contaminated ground beef in Washington state and Georgia. The list goes on, and E. coli is not the only pathogen making our children sick.