School Food Safety

Making School Foods Safe: Policy Changes to Reduce Risks to Students

Each year, an estimated 48 million Americans get sick from eating contaminated foods, and half of them are children. Over the past 40 years, tens of thousands of students and staff have been sickened by outbreaks in schools caused by contaminated meat, poultry and lettuce. Children are at particularly high risk for foodborne illnesses because they weigh less than adults and their immune systems are still developing. Common foodborne diseases like Salmonella can lead to short- and long-term health consequences, and in some cases even death.

There are steps everyone can take—whether at home or in a school kitchen—to reduce the risk of getting sick from a foodborne disease. Washing hands, storing food properly and cooking foods to the right temperature are some of the guidelines schools follow in their kitchens and cafeterias. Federal, state and local government agencies share responsibility for overseeing schools’ safety practices and ensuring that contaminated food doesn’t make it into cafeterias.

Recent reports have revealed major gaps in the food safety system, sometimes causing schools to unknowingly receive recalled food. For example, during a 2009 recall of peanut products, schools unknowingly served food that may have been contaminated with Salmonella because they did not receive timely notice from the federal government.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to take additional steps to make school foods safe. The law requires USDA to:

Coordinate with other government agencies to improve the timeliness of food recall notifications so that contaminated foods aren’t accidentally served to students;

Improve the commodity “hold and recall” procedures it follows when there is a problem; and

Extend food safety requirements to cover meals served throughout the school campus, so that those foods are safe whether they’re offered in the cafeteria, classroom or elsewhere.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) took a step toward improving school food safety and reducing students’ risk of foodborne illness by signing an agreement with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The two agencies agreed to share information about food recalls and illness outbreaks more quickly in emergencies. In addition, USDA is currently working to improve its recall communications with school districts. However, safety remains a concern. A report released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2011 noted that USDA lacked a rigorous, scientific process to determine which of the 180 commodity foods it provides to schools warrant stronger purchasing standards given the age of students.

The Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project is working to develop a risk-assessment tool that would allow USDA to better identify and address high-risk food products. In addition, the project is focused on making sure that strong food safety policies are in place and that schools are able to implement them.