Elizabeth Weiss and Peter Eisler of the USA Today continue on this month’s hard look at the school lunch program in this morning’s “Schools could learn lessons on food safety.” It is a good read. It is concerning, however, that the fast food industry is held up as a model of food safety for our kid’s lunches. But as I said to Ms. Weiss:

The standards have worked, by all accounts. Seattle-based food safety lawyer Bill Marler, who has been involved in almost all the major food safety lawsuits of the past 15 years, says he hasn’t sued McDonald’s since 1994 for a company-based E. coli illness and can’t think of anyone else who has.

Although, I found all the experts smart and attractive, I found only one smart, attractive and right on the money:

Personally, I do believe that, given the amount of food that is purchased by the federal and state governments for and by schools, smart governmental policy might well make a positive impact on food safety, food quality and food that is in fact healthful and sustainable. Just look at the negative ones (e.g. corn policy) for a bad example of government policy – even bad policies work – in bad ways.

The USA Today’s Op-ed, “Our view on food safety: Who is USDA’s 1st client, the public or the industry?” proves my point of what governments can do when they are a dominate player in the food and regulatory market. Here is just part of the Op-ed:

— The USDA buys meat for the school lunch program from the lowest bidder among those certified to meet USDA standards. But at least one certified bidder — Beef Packers Inc. of Fresno — has recalled tainted meat twice this year and earlier was suspended from the school lunch program three times.

— The USDA oversaw the two Beef Packers ground beef recalls this year but allowed some meat produced within the recall window to go to the federal school lunch program anyway.

— The USDA helps egg producers by buying "spent hen" meat from hens past their egg-laying prime and passing it on to the school lunch program. The chicken is so unappealing that Campbell Soup stopped using it more than a decade ago.

— The USDA does not enforce a law that requires that school cafeterias be inspected twice a year to prevent unsafe practices, even though state and local health authorities fail to do this in more than a quarter of all schools. The law provides no penalties, but it does require schools to give inspection reports to anyone who asks. Couldn’t the USDA ask, and post the results online? Alerting parents might be more effective than penalties.

No doubt part of the reason for USDA’s laxity is its dual mandate to regulate the agriculture industry while also promoting it. A similar conflict of interest in air safety regulation was eliminated years ago after it was identified as a contributor to plane crashes.  The same should be done with food safety. The USDA’s record suggests that it doesn’t quite grasp the idea that its most important client is the public it’s supposed to protect, not the industries it oversees.

Makes a bit too much sense.

  • Marymary

    Interesting series, I’d like to read it in its entirety when I have more time.
    When I inspected school kitchens, they were usually the cleanest and best maintained of all the places I inpected, including fast food and other chain restaurants.
    Confusion over glove use, was a problem at schools and almost all of the restaurants and other retail food establishments I inspected. Therefore, I thought that the article that mentioned a norovirus outbreak attributed bare-hand contact with ready-to-eat food was interesting.
    The schools I inspected wanted their cafeteria staff to wear gloves when it really wasn’t necessary, such as when they were at the serving line and using spoons and ladles to serve food. Basically, they saw glove use as a public relations issue.
    While doing an in-service at one school where many questions came up about glove use, I finally told the managers and other staff, “If you want to go above and beyond the law that’s your choice. You risk confusing your employees and having them improperly use gloves or not use them at all when needed, however.” I got blank stares in response.