Warning labels on food

Posted: Thursday, January 07, 2010

The following editorial appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Lax testing of food quality in school cafeterias is giving troubling new meaning to the term "mystery meat."

Congress is making a welcome push for higher food-testing standards following reports from government investigators and newspapers that shone a light on glaring gaps in safety standards.

That comes in the face of numerous challenges to improving the food-safety system in general, as millions of people are sickened and 5,000 die annually from food-borne illnesses. Tracking the source of food contamination remains a major concern, as well as the efficiency of enacting recalls.

With millions of children looking to school lunches for their daily nutrition, it's critical to assure their safety.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack pledged a fresh review of requirements for ground beef that the USDA supplies to schools. USA Today reported last month that school kitchens have been sent millions of pounds of beef and chicken that wouldn't meet the quality or safety standards of many fast-food restaurants.

In another media report last week, the USDA was faulted for giving a pass on routine safety tests to a major producer of processed beef. Testing eventually done by the agency for the school lunch program found dozens of E. coli and "salmonella pathogens" in Beef Products meat, the New York Times reported.

A recent report by the Government Accountability Office questioned whether federal agencies are getting out the word to schools about food recalls.

In general, government regulators need to plug holes in the system through which food producers notify federal officials about contamination, such as a 2008 salmonella outbreak that sickened hundreds.

Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., has introduced legislation he says will protect the 31 million children who receive food through the National School Lunch Program.

Better food safeguards are needed, in general. The fact that the findings concerning processed beef contamination surprised some top USDA officials also points to the need for federal officials to better connect the dots on information regarding food-safety data.

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