Safe school lunches

Sorenne started school today, the equivalent of North American kindergarten and what is called prep here, every day, 9 a.m. – 3 p.m.

Because of the heat (Brisbane is the Tampa of Australia) and lack of, cool packing is a must.

And it has to be pink for the princess (but ice hockey starts Sunday).

The humble lunchbox has taken on a life of its own with varieties now ranging from a basic $3 plastic container to an $85 stainless steel contraption.

And just as the choice of lunchbox shapes, colors and sizes is endless, so is the range of accessories.

Insulated carry cases, removable compartments, drink bottles and ice pack inserts are among the more practical extras.

We spent 10 minutes going over the various containers – frozen ice pack half-filled with juice, two compartments for morning fruit (grapes and apple slices) and a larger compartment below for lunch (salami and cheese sandwich on whole grain bread, with a peeled orange).

She’ll eat when she gets home. This was the fifth time I’ve sent a daughter off to school. No tears.

Pink slime gone; but are companies, USDA really interested in choice?

What we have here is a failure to communicate.

If you believe proponents, critics and prison wardons, disputes about science and facts and personal relationships are failures in communication, in that you don’t agree with me.

It’s based on an authoritarian model and is the oldest excuse out there; all kinds of problems could be solved if everyone just communicated better, especially scientists and others.

For almost 30 years I have been told failures in communication underpin conflict when usually it is failure to commit – to an idea, a belief, a principle.

And it’s not new.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s line on BPI’s pink slime was, "All USDA ground beef purchases must meet the highest standards for food safety. USDA has strengthened ground beef food safety standards in recent years and only allows products into commerce that we have confidence are safe.”

Two hours later, USDA changed its tune, leaking the news that schools will have choice in response to requests from districts.

The official announcement came earlier today. “USDA only purchases products for the school lunch program that are safe, nutritious and affordable – including all products containing Lean Finely Textured Beef. However, due to customer demand, the department will be adjusting procurement specifications for the next school year so schools can have additional options in procuring ground beef products. USDA will provide schools with a choice to order product either with or without Lean Finely Textured Beef.”

Eldon Roth, founder of BPI, issued a statement today again focusing on safety, which is fine, but blamed media coverage. “As parents and consumers continue to make important decisions about the food they and their children eat, we hope that they listen to credible sources outside media sensationalists and take note of the overwhelming support from the government and scientific community who have routinely testified that our lean beef trimmings are 100% beef and are produced, and tested in a way that makes this food very safe. The facts can be found at”

Facts are never enough.

BPI has followed the well-worn script of fact-based communication, and failure has followed.

The American Meat Institute backed a statement by BPI by saying, “First of all, it shouldn’t be referred to as ‘pink slime.’ That is part of the problem. What we need to do is better communicate the true facts to consumers. The accurate label is beef. It’s just lean, finely textured beef; not ‘pink slime.’”


Referring to last year’s E. coli O104-in-sprouts outbreak Germany’s ministerial director and federal director of food, agriculture and consumer protection, Bernhard Kühnle told a recent gathering, “We need to make sure we establish trusted scientists to communicate to the media before there is a crisis …The more days the crisis continued the more experts appeared in the media. Someone said it was certainly cucumbers, and someone else said it was raw milk. Someone even said it was caused by Al Qaeda.”

Yes, if only trusted scientists would communicate better. Didn’t help BPI.

BPI also made the fatal mistake of denying consumer choice.

BPI director of food safety and quality assurance Craig Letch told“Long-story short, the whole situation has been a gross-misunderstanding of the product and the processing measures involved with the product. It has directly stemmed from media-outlets trying to sensationalize and build up hype around the product.”

Letch added that consumers do not need to be informed that the product is included in another meat product as it is “meat, 100% lean meat.”

Choice is a good thing. I’m all for restaurant inspection disclosure, providing information on genetically-engineered foods (we did it 12 years ago), knowing where food comes from and how it’s produced.

But I want to choose safe food. Who defines safety or GE or any other snappy dinner-table slogan drop?

Self-proclaimed food activists are no better, claiming their educational efforts won the day. The number of people barfing from food will not be reduced by rhetoric. No one won.

USDA and the companies that previously outlawed pink slime acted expediently to manage a public-relations event. But they unwillingly undercut other efforts to provide safe, sustainable food.

What is USDA going to do about school lunch purchases containing genetically-engineered ingredients, hormones, antibiotics and a whole slew of politically-loaded ingredients?

Commitment means bragging about it. Market microbial food safety and hold producers and processors – conventional, organic or otherwise – to a standard of producing food that doesn’t make people barf. That’s something shoppers will support, instead of being told they can’t choose and have to become better educated about someone else’s limited perspective.

It’s only a little mold: applesauce repackaged by school lunch supplier; 9 kids in NC sickened

JoNel Aleccia of msnbc reports that products recalled earlier this year by a Washington state fruit processor were blamed for illnesses of nine North Carolina children who became sick after eating applesauce at school.

This illnesses are only now being made public because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration wrote a letter to the company, Snokist Growers of Yakima, Wash., saying the company cannot ensure the safety of moldy applesauce and fruit puree that has been reconditioned for human consumption.

“Your firm reprocesses moldy applesauce product … using a method that is not effective against all toxic metabolites,” read the FDA letter sent Oct. 20 to Jimmie L. Davis, Snokist’s president. “Several foodborne molds may be hazardous to human health.”

The latest warning came after FDA officials said Snokist failed to adequately address problems identified during a June inspection in which regulators found large, laminated bags of fruit products that were supposed to be sealed and sterile, but instead were broken open and tainted with white, brown, blue, blue-green and black mold.

Some of the compromised bags were bloated and one had “a strong fermented odor,” the report said.

The FDA’s letter identified at least eight instances last year in which Snokist had reprocessed the moldy applesauce into canned goods for human consumption. The inspection report said Snokist documents showed the company had reprocessed mold-contaminated applesauce at least 13 times between January 2008 and May 2011, repackaging food into 15-ounce cans, 106-ounce-cans, 300-gallon bags and 4.2-ounce, single-serve cups.

It’s not clear whether the mold-tainted applesauce went to schools. However, the June inspection followed a voluntary recall of more than 3,300 cases of canned Snokist applesauce in May after North Carolina schoolchildren became mildly ill after eating the fruit product. The recall was blamed on faulty seals on cans. The children have since recovered.

Snokist officials admit that they “rework” some moldy food for future use. But in an e-mail to, company officials said that the contaminated fruit represents only a fraction of the company’s products, that compromised product is typically separated and destroyed, and that any reprocessed food is heat-treated to kill toxins.

“If rework occurs, our thermal process is more than adequate to render the product commercially sterile,” Tina Moss, a company spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail.

However, the FDA said the company’s tests are not adequate and that officials must prove they’re testing for other dangerous microbes: “Most mycotoxins are stable compounds that are not destroyed by heat treatment,” the letter said.

Snokist applesauce is also sold at retailers. I wonder who the third-party auditor was?

Stricter testing for federal ground beef program may not lead to safer meat

About a year ago, the USA Today ran a series of stories about the microbial safety of food served in the U.S. school lunch program, stating,

McDonald’s, Burger King and Costco, for instance, are far more rigorous in checking for bacteria and dangerous pathogens. They test the ground beef they buy five to 10 times more often than the USDA tests beef made for schools during a typical production day. And the limits Jack in the Box and other big retailers set for certain bacteria in their burgers are up to 10 times more stringent than what the USDA sets for school beef.”?

That caused a stir at the time, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture commissioned a report from the National Research Council, which formed a Committee on an Evaluation of the Food Safety Requirements of the Federal Purchase Ground Beef Program, chaired by Gary Acuff of Texas A&M University.

Today, the committee concluded in their published report (it’s not on-line yet) there is, “no scientific basis that more stringent testing of meat purchased through the government’s ground beef purchase program and distributed to various federal food and nutrition programs — including the National School Lunch Program — would lead to safer meat."

In its assessment of AMS’s ground beef purchase program, the committee that wrote the report said validated cooking processes provide greater assurance of ground beef’s safety than would additional testing for pathogens. Testing alone cannot guarantee the complete absence of pathogens because of statistical implications associated with how beef is sampled during testing.

The committee’s analysis of the number of illnesses since 1998 linked with AMS ground beef provided to schools suggests that outbreaks were rare events before AMS requirements became more stringent in February, implying that controls already in place were appropriate for protecting public health. For instance, no recorded outbreaks of E. coli or salmonella associated with AMS ground beef have occurred in more than a decade. Prevention of future outbreaks will depend on eliminating contamination during production and ensuring meat is properly handled, stored, and cooked before it is served, the committee emphasized.

As part of its review, the committee also attempted to compare the AMS specifications with those of large industry purchasers of ground beef. Among purchasers, the committee found considerable differences in testing and safety standards and suspected that the intended use of the ground beef could account for the variations. For example, all raw AMS ground beef is distributed in frozen form, but distributors of fresh meat products may require different standards designed to improve shelf life. While AMS safety requirements appear comparable to or more demanding than those of commercial companies on the surface, the lack of information detailing the science used for corporate specifications prevented the committee from making direct comparisons.

"The report encourages AMS to strengthen its established specifications and requirements for ground beef by utilizing a transparent and clearly defined science-based process," said Gary Acuff, chair of the committee and professor and director of the Center for Food Safety at Texas A&M University, College Station.

In addition, the report says that some of the requirements were founded on expert opinion and industry practices where the scientific basis was unclear. The committee recommended that AMS base their requirements on standards supported by the International Commission on Microbiological Safety of Foods, the Codex Alimentarius Commission, and the Research Council report An Evaluation of the Role of Microbiological Criteria for Foods and Food Ingredients. It also suggested that AMS analyze data from the suppliers’ bacterial testing to evaluate the safety requirements over time and use statistical methods to set testing sample and lot sizes. Overall, AMS should develop a systematic, transparent, and auditable system for modifying, reviewing, updating, and justifying purchasing specifications.

More food prep means more food safety basics; lunch ladies going gourmet

I was always more of a brown-bagger when it came to lunch. The high school cafeteria food was gross – although I did have a penchant for their ham and cheese melts on some sort of white wallpaper bun – but cost was the primary factor. Why would anyone pay for stuff that could be made at home for nothing when parental-types bought the food.

That was in Canada. The U.S. school lunch program is a little different.

And now the lunch ladies are developing their culinary skills to go along with the demand for so-called healthier foods.

Dawn Cordova, a longtime school cafeteria worker attending Denver Public Schools’ first "scratch cooking" training this summer, told Associated Press,

"It’s more work to cook from scratch, no doubt."

Cordova and about 40 other Denver lunch ladies spent three weeks mastering knife skills, baking and chopping fruits and vegetables for some of the school district’s first salad bars.

Denver is among countless school systems in at least 24 states working to revive proper cooking techniques in its food service staff.

The city issued its 600 or so cafeteria employees white chefs’ coats and hats and plans to have all its kitchen staff trained in basic knife skills within three years.

Well-known area chefs visit for primers on food safety, chopping technique and making healthy food more appetizing to young diners (hint: kids prefer veggies cut into funky shapes, not boring carrot sticks).

Chefs say that schools embraced processed food so completely that many newer cafeterias lack the basics of a production kitchen, such as produce sinks, oven hoods or enough cold storage to keep meat and produce fresh.

No mention of microbial food safety, but with all the extra kitchen prep, the risk potential increases, especially with cross-contamination. Here’s hoping they master the basics unlike the TV cooks who routinely serve up microbiological disasters.

USDA trying to match safety standards of Wal-Mart – not there yet

People hate Wal-Mart. Especially in college towns, where life would be idyllic if everyone had a salary of at least an associate professor, and where one doesn’t fit in without at least three disparaging Wal-Mart comments per conversation about shopping habits.

The children of these people go to elementary and secondary schools, and some may get fed through the school lunch program.

So it’s encouraging to note the U.S. Department of Agriculture has enacted what they call tough new food safety standards for ground beef purchased by the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) for Federal food and nutrition assistance programs including school lunches.

All it took was a couple of features in USA Today to raise the public’s ire, and awaken dozens of dozing bureaucrats.

As reported in Feb. 2010, the new standards follow a USA Today investigation that revealed that beef bought by the USDA for school lunches is not tested as rigorously for bacteria and pathogens as beef bought by many fast-food chains. The newspaper also reported that some food producers have been allowed to continue supplying the school lunch program despite having poor safety records with their commercial products.

I have such low expectations of government. As I told USA Today back when, ??“Does it have to be government? They’re not very good at this stuff.”??

And as noted by others in those stories, the lesson is that organizations with great buying power — such as fast-food chains or the school lunch program — can set higher standards, and industry ultimately will meet those standards because that’s where the money is. The school lunch program purchases huge volumes of commodities such as beef, poultry and other staples –– $830 million worth in 2008.

So it’s about time. Kids, you’re still just another brick in the wall.

New US school lunch rules coming; companies should stay way ahead

Tomorrow’s USA Today talks about the new school lunch rules coming from the U.S. Department of Agriculture by this summer (sorry, kids already in school).

USDA official Craig Morris told program suppliers at a National Meat Association conference here last week that much work remains to ensure that food purchased for the National School Lunch Program — in particular, ground beef — is "as safe, wholesome and high quality" as the best commercial products.

Beef industry representatives here said they could adapt to the new standards but pressed the USDA to move fast so they know what changes will be required.

The new standards follow a USA TODAY investigation that revealed that beef bought by the USDA for school lunches is not tested as rigorously for bacteria and pathogens as beef bought by many fast-food chains. The newspaper also reported that some food producers have been allowed to continue supplying the school lunch program despite having poor safety records with their commercial products.

But as I like to harp, the big news, repeated in the USA Today story, is that Cargill and a company it owns, Beef Packers, are trialing the use of third-party video audits not just for animal welfare but to enhance food safety systems.

However, the third-party bit really doesn’t matter — haven’t there been enough outbreaks involving third-party audited farms and facilities? Just create a credible and transparent system to enhance consumer and buyer confidence. And don’t wait for the government to do it.

Are you making kids barf with the lunch you pack?

After a couple months in the sun, the Aussie kids are getting ready to go back to school, which means warnings from health types.

I’ve packed a lot of lunches over a lot of years and 5 daughters. Didn’t use ice packs. Did use a variety of cooler bags given out as swag at conferences that would keep things cool.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports the NSW Food Authority examined the lunches of 766 Sydney primary school students. Didn’t say what they found. Awesome.

The Primary Industries Minister, Steve Whan, said warmer summer temperatures provided an ideal environment for bacteria to multiply but less than a third of lunchboxes – 29 per cent – surveyed were stored safely with an ice brick or frozen drink to keep food cool.

”It is essential that lunches are kept cool for school – sandwiches with meat or chicken can sit for up to five hours before kids eat them, so they can have much more bacteria if food is stored at room temperature. ‘On a very hot day that can be a recipe for food poisoning.”

In 2006 NSW Food Authority research found that lunches packed in paper bags were 12 degrees warmer than lunches packed with a frozen drink, the authority’s chief scientist, Lisa Szabo, said.

”I remember when I first started school it was a very exciting day, with so many new things to do, but the experience of food poisoning is not one of those things you want to have.”

Show us the data, or the sick people.