Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2009 | 2:05 a.m.
The chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee wants an investigation into the safety of school lunches. Judging by what the nation has seen with E. coli outbreaks and other food scares, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., has good reason to be concerned that potentially fatal contaminants could be served up in school cafeterias.
A recent report to Congress found that the Agriculture Department’s Food and Nutrition Service, which provides up to 20 percent of the food served in the nation’s schools, doesn’t always provide the schools with timely recall notices. That increases the risk of contaminated food making its way onto children’s plates.
Miller notes that schools receive food from other sources and points to the recent E. coli outbreak from a meat packing plant in New York. None of the 500,000 pounds went to schools, but the contaminated meat — which caused two deaths and sickened 16 others — highlights another problem. The federal schools program mandates that all its beef be tested for E. coli. However, the meat that schools receive from other sources is not required to undergo E. coli testing.
In response, Miller asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate the entire school food system, which is complex. Federal, state and local governments all play roles, with food coming from a variety of sources.
There is already a move in Congress to tighten requirements and oversight. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has proposed a bill mandating that schools quickly get recall notices. She also is planning legislation that would require more testing for contaminants at meat packing plants.
Miller is correct to call for a full investigation, and he should press the issue. Children, whose immune systems are still developing, are particularly vulnerable to E. coli and other contaminants. The entire school food system needs to be fully explored so Congress can find ways to make sure schools are well protected from food-borne illnesses.