US: GAO audit: Schools slow to get alerts about tainted food
Posted: September 22nd, 2009 - 11:43am
Source: USA Today
WASHINGTON -- Federal agencies that supply food for 31 million schoolchildren fail to ensure that tainted products are pulled quickly from cafeterias, a federal audit obtained by USA TODAY finds.
The delays raise the risk of children being sickened by contaminated food, according to the audit by Congress' Government Accountability Office.
In recent recalls, including one this year in which salmonella-infected peanut butter sickened almost 700 people, the government failed to disseminate "timely and complete notification about suspect food products provided to schools through the federal commodities program," the audit says.
Such alerts sometimes took more than a week to reach schools, "during which time (schools) unknowingly served affected products."
The audit focuses on the Food and Nutrition Service, or FNS, an arm of the Department of Agriculture that provides states and school systems with federally purchased commodities for school lunch and breakfast programs. The agency lacks systems to ensure that it is notified when the Food and Drug Administration begins a food-safety investigation that may lead to a recall, the audit says.
Then, instead of determining in advance whether a suspect product was sent to schools — and advising those schools not to serve the food while the investigation is underway — the service sometimes doesn't begin that process until a recall announcement is made.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says in a written response to the audit that ensuring the safety of school meals is of "utmost importance" and the department is developing a formal system to get advance notice when FDA is investigating food-safety concerns that could lead to recalls. He also promised new policies and guidelines to improve communication with states and schools.