The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) took a step toward improving school food safety and reducing students' risk of foodborne illness when top officials signed a new agreement with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Under the memorandum of understanding (MOU), the two government agencies agree to share information on food recalls and illness outbreaks in a timelier manner. This prompt communication is important because USDA sells food items to schools across the country at discounted prices through the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, and many of these items are FDA-regulated foods (e.g., dairy products and fruits and vegetables).
The recommendation to develop the MOU came from a 2009 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, School Meal Programs: Changes to Federal Agencies' Procedures Could Reduce the Risk of School Children Consuming Recalled Food. The report in turn followed two well-publicized school food recall situations. The first involved the Peanut Corporation of America's recall of Salmonella-tainted products; the second was a ground beef recall by Hallmark/Westland. In both cases, the GAO found that communication gaps between USDA and FDA were largely to blame for delays in schools receiving important information about the recalls. The delay meant that schools had potentially contaminated food on their pantry shelves and likely served it to students.
Under the new agreement, USDA will receive immediate notification from FDA of any investigations, as well as complaints, reports or events, related to FDA-regulated products schools may have purchased from USDA. This information will help USDA decide whether to place a hold on a suspect product while awaiting test results. The two agencies will also work together to respond to and communicate information about recalls, and to carry out recall audits of FDA-regulated foods used in school meals.
With the signing of this MOU, schools will be better informed about food recalls and will be able to ensure that they only serve students safe foods.