GAO says school-related food poisonings rising 10 percent annually

Tuesday, April 30th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Food poisonings in the nation's schools are increasing at a rate of about 10 percent a year, according to a congressional study released Tuesday

The General Accounting Office says that federal government should disclose its inspection records on food plants to the state and local agencies that buy food for schools.

In 1999, the latest year for which data are available, there were 50 school-related outbreaks reported nationwide with 2,900 illnesses, GAO said.

Officials don't know how many of those outbreaks were caused by lunches served in cafeterias as opposed to food kids brought from home, but it is believed that school-provided meals were the culprit in a majority of cases.

Of those outbreaks with a known cause, most were linked to salmonella bacteria and Norwalk-like viruses.

The study was prepared for a joint hearing of House and Senate committees.

The Agriculture Department heavily subsidizes school lunches and buys some of the food, while state and local agencies purchase the rest. USDA ``provides little guidance'' to those agencies to ensure that the food they are buying is safe, GAO said.

GAO officials also faulted the government's regulatory system for food. USDA regulates meat, while the Food and Drug Administration has responsibility for most other foods. Neither agency has authority to require companies to recall tainted products.

Creating a single agency to regulate food ``would go a long way'' toward improving its safety, GAO said.

``Contaminated food is particularly dangerous to school-aged children because this population is among those with the highest risk of contracting a serious illness resulting in hospitalization or death,'' said Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Nationwide, food poisonings have been on the decline.

Preliminary data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier in April showed substantial drops in the rates of illness from six of seven major types of food-borne bacteria from 1996 to 2001. The rate of E. coli illnesses fell 21 percent, salmonella 15 percent and listeria 35 percent.