Last week, the headline of a story in USA Today caught my eye. I read the story, and immediately wished I hadn't. I don't know if I'll ever be able to eat processed food again...certainly not tortillas.
The story, Schools in the dark about tainted lunches, discussed in detail the lack of information that schools are giving regarding the food they serve kids at lunchtime. Before reading this article, I had innocently assumed that school administrators in charge of the health and safety of thousands of children each day would be immediately notified when problems arise with food vendors in their area. Sadly, that's simply not the case. Instead, as the newspaper pointed out, schools are often the last to know.
As the cornerstone of their argument, the USA Today story highlighted the case of the "Del Ray Tortilla" incident that sickened 70 children in one Wisconsin school in 2007. Had this been an isolated case of food poisoning, I wouldn't even raise my eyebrows. But it turns out that the company that manufactured those tortillas had been serving tainted food to kids for years.
According to USA Today, before the illnesses in Wisconsin, flour tortillas from Chicago's Del Rey Tortilleria caused similar outbreaks at more than a dozen schools in two other states — in 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006. In 2006, Del Rey recalled tens of thousands of tortillas after health officials linked them to illnesses at schools in Massachusetts and Illinois. And in a 2006 study of prior outbreaks, a panel of top scientists with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration even offered this warning: "Flour tortillas manufactured by Del Rey hold the potential to cause illness." Despite the concerns, the FDA never shared the panel's warning with school officials anywhere.
If Wisconsin school district officials had known then what the federal government knew for years about Del Rey, they say they never would have served the tortillas. The FDA inspection reports, reviewed independently for the USA Today article, detail a history of sanitary violations at Del Rey that extended for years. Yet even though access to such information might help schools make wiser decisions about what to serve, those reports are shielded from public view. The FDA's rationale for withholding them? They claim the reports contain what companies and the government consider "proprietary information," because they detail food recipes in addition to sanitary violations.
Schools have virtually no hope of figuring out where all of the food on a child's lunch tray originates. That's because the food often is handled by many processors and distributors. If schools do determine who made the food they serve, there is no easy way for them to check the health and safety records of individual companies. Inspection reports on companies that supply food are not posted publicly, and school officials must file formal requests that often take months to fulfill. And when the government finds problems at companies, it does little to alert parents, schools or food distributors.
And it doesn't stop with tortillas. In November, 2002, chicken tenders contaminated with ammonia made 110 people sick at two Joliet, Ill., schools. And earlier this year, nine people died and 226 school-age children were sickened by salmonella in peanut products from the Peanut Corp. of America, or PCA. Yet five weeks after acknowledging that PCA products were purchased for the National School Lunch Program, the USDA still was trying to figure out which products had gone to which processors — and which schools ended up with them.
So what's the solution? Unfortunately, there is no one quick and easy answer to this problem. But next year, Congress when considers ways to improve the Child Nutrition Act (the law that governs school meal programs,) there is a chance that progress will be made in streamlining the process of notifying schools about tainted food and recalled food products.
Until then, you can bet that my kids will be packing on taco day.