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.

Last fall, the Washington state Supreme Court affirmed a Jury’s verdict of $4.75 million against a small, rural School District for undercooking hamburger that was contaminated with the deadly pathogen, E. coli O157:H7 and was served to elementary students for lunch in the fall of 1998. Justice for these children, one who suffered severe kidney failure, was long in coming. The big issue is not the money, no matter how well deserved. The issue is that the contaminated meat was sent to the school through the National School Lunch Program by the same Governmental agency supposedly responsible for meat safety – the USDA.

When ground beef is irradiated, at least 99.99 percent of E. coli and other harmful foodborne bacteria are killed. Yet irradiation is not a panacea; it is only one additional food safety measure. Others I strongly urge are higher quality and safety standards from plants and suppliers; improved traceback of contaminated meat; better training of food service personnel; serving precooked as well as irradiated foods in school cafeterias; educating students, faculty and parents on safe food handling practices; and requiring the USDA and FDA to publish online all inspection reports, recall notices, and violations of food safety standards for every plant that supplies food to our schools. This will give parents and school administrators a powerful tool in learning the quality of food being served to the children. This comprehensive and cost effective approach to food safety protects our kids and protects a school’s budget by preventing lawsuits.

Shown to be safe after more than 40 years of research, food irradiation is endorsed by nearly every major science and health agency, including the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the American Medical Association, and the American Dietetic Association. The CDC estimates that if just 50 percent of the meat and poultry were irradiated, the number of foodborne illnesses would be reduced by 900,000 annually and deaths by 352.

Legislators and school board members interested in getting both sides of the food irradiation debate should talk to Rainer Mueller of Oceanside, California. His 13-year-old son, Eric, died from complications of E. coli after eating a contaminated hamburger in 1993. Mr. Mueller has since served as president of the grassroots organization STOP (Safe Tables Our Priority) that is made up primarily of victims and families of foodborne illness. He has also established a website, www.ericsecho.org, in his son’s memory and for the purpose of educating others about the risks and possible tragic outcomes of foodborne illness. Mr. Mueller sums it up succinctly, “Irradiation is not a silver bullet, but rather one of the tools which should be used to reduce the risk of illness, and in my son’s case, death.”