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Denver – The statewide consumer group CoPIRG launched a new effort today to ensure the food served in school lunches is safe. With the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) set to implement higher safety standards for the beef served through the National School Lunch Program, the group is calling on the USDA to also increase the standards for other high risk foods like poultry and fish as well as giving schools more resources to be able to avoid recalled foods.
“For too long, giant food companies have been able to dump their lowest quality food onto our children because the safety standards for the National School Lunch Program are lower than the fast food industry standards,” said CoPIRG’s Director Danny Katz standing in front of a local McDonalds restaurant. “Children are some of the most vulnerable to food-borne illnesses so we need to see improvements not just for beef but for all the food served on school lunch trays.”
CoPIRG’s Safe Foods, Healthy Kids Campaign is targeting the National School Lunch Program, a federally assisted meal program that serves low-cost or free lunches to nearly 31 million children. On July 1st, the USDA will be increasing the standards and testing for the beef that is purchased for the National School Lunch Program. However, CoPIRG points to a number of problems that still exist for the program that they believe increase the likeliness of kids getting sick.
For example, safety standards for chicken are so low that the chicken sold to the school lunch program comes from “spent hens”—chickens that are too old to lay eggs, whose meat is tough and stringy, and four times more susceptible to salmonella than the chicken purchased at the supermarket.
“If Campbell’s Soup and KFC won’t buy it, it shouldn’t be on our kids’ lunch trays,” said Katz.
CoPIRG is also tackling a tracking system that does not get recalled food out of schools quickly enough or give schools the information to avoid purchasing food from companies with bad track records. In September 2009, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent government watchdog, found a slow and cumbersome federal response to dangerous recalled products. According to the GAO, it sometimes took schools a week or more to determine what products were subject to a recall, during which time they unknowingly served recalled products. After the salmonella in peanut products outbreak of 2009, it took almost a full week before regulators removed potentially contaminated food from school lunches.
“We need to give schools more resources so they can avoid these tainted products,” said Katz.
CoPIRG is pursuing two avenues to improve the National School Lunch Program. The first is to convince the USDA to follow up their action on beef and extend it to other high risk foods. The second is to convince Congress to pass the Child Nutrition Act and include more resources that will help schools avoid recalled food.
“The clock is ticking,” said Katz. “We need to make these important improvements before kids head back to school in two months.”
To build support, CoPIRG is gathering hundreds of pictures that kids can color in asking the Obama Administration to ensure that their food is safe.
“I’m definitely surprised that the standards for the food my kid will eat in school are lower than McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets,” said Cheyne Hill, a parent whose 4-year old child Brytani took part in CoPIRG’s picture drawing campaign. “The food we serve in schools should have the highest safety standards not the lowest.”
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